The New and Improved School Lunch

Wednesday, August 29, 2007 - 3:39pm

By Karen Crawford, MS, RD, CSP

Think back to your days in grammar school. What memories can you conjure up about school lunch? You probably recall being served a hot meal of limited variety by a group of lunch ladies dressed in white from head to toe. Boy, have things changed! The school lunches served to our kids today are in the midst of a complete and total makeover courtesy of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). The NSLP is a federally-funded program that serves low-cost or free lunches that are well-balanced and nutritious to millions of children across the U.S. everyday. Not only do they provide funding to school systems who wish to participate in the program, but they do so only under the circumstances that the meals served meet certain nutrition requirements. Although the NSLP has been in place since the Truman administration, its requirements are becoming more and more stringent as new research surrounding diet and health become available.

Not the same old cafeteria food

The reputation of school lunch has gotten a lot better over the years but there are still plenty of misconceptions surrounding the program. Those who continue to think that school lunch consists of fatty "mystery meat" and macaroni and cheese loaded with fat are terribly misinformed. The truth is that in order to participate in the NSLP, meals served must meet specific nutrient standards. These standards ensure that your children are offered a healthy meal so that their stomachs are full and they are ready to learn.

NSLP Nutrition Standards

Lunches served under the NSLP must meet specific Dietary Guidelines for Americans and one third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for calories, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, and calcium. The relevant Dietary Guidelines state that the meals must contain no more than 30% of calories from fat and no more than 10% of calories form saturated fat. Meeting these guidelines is mandated by the program in order for the schools to receive funding; and although the local schools decide which foods are served and how they are prepared, the guidelines keep the meals in check. The even better news is that many school systems are going over and beyond the guidelines and ridding their kitchens of fryers, replacing white bread and pasta with whole wheat, using reduced-fat cheese on sandwiches and salads, taking whole milk off the menu entirely, and limiting the amount of juice offered.

NSLP Statistics - how many lunches have been served?

In the 2006 fiscal year, 30.1 million children across the U.S. received a lunch as part of the NSLP; and since the program was started in 1946, 186 billion lunches have been served.

Conclusion: healthy, low-cost and easy - the new school lunches

School lunches can be a healthy, low-cost, and easy alternative to a lunch of PB&J, Doritos, and a juice box. I encourage you to check out the lunches that your local school is offering. Ask questions, make suggestions, and let your local school know that you are interested in what they are serving. Open you eyes to the possibility of not staying up late to throw together another sack lunch and take advantage of the new and improved school lunch.

National School Lunch Program. Available at: Accessed August 1, 2007.