Causes of School Lunch Controversy

The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 Changed Lunches, Not Everyone Agrees

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 In response to growing concern over child obesity in the U.S., the 2010 reauthorization the Child Nutrition Act included several new requirements for schools receiving federal funds for their school lunch programs. The 2010 section of the Child Nutrition Act is known as the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA.)

The 2010 guidelines are meant to provide a minimum standard of nutritious, healthful food that will provide enough calories without contributing to obesity.

The changes from previous school lunch standards include requirements for school lunches such as:

  • Bread products that are made from at least fifty percent whole grains
  • Larger servings of fresh fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables must be served every day.  Green, leafy vegetable must be served once a week.
  • White and flavored milk must be nonfat or one percent fat.
  • Meals must meet both minimum and maximum calorie requirements for the age group to which they are being served, according to USDA standards.
  • Foods cannot contain any trans-fats that are not naturally occurring in the food.
  • School districts must create a local wellness policy

These guidelines are more specific and extensive than school lunch guidelines were in the past. It took schools districts about five years to make the adjustments, yet the guidelines remain a point of controversy. The guidelines were even a popular talking point for Republican candidates during the 2016 presidential primary, with candidates promising to roll back the guidelines to allow saltier and tastier foods in school lunches.

A 2016 study of a Washington state school district that was published in JAMA Pediatrics suggests that the new guidelines are indeed getting school children to eat healthier. The study compared students lunch buying before and after the guidelines were implemented. The results showed that the same number of students continued to buy school lunches, even once the new lunches had more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

The study covered only a single school district in an urban area. While it does support the HHFKA guidelines in this area, it does not provide evidence of effectiveness in other areas of the nation.

Schools must follow the HHFKA standards to receive federal dollars for their lunch programs.  While some school districts only receive one or two percent of their lunch budget from the USDA before sales, many districts receive substantially more dollars through the free and reduced lunch program.

The free and reduced school meals program reimburses part or all of the cost of a school lunch for children from low-income families. This reimbursement money may make a small percentage of an affluent school's lunch program or almost all of the funding for schools in high-poverty areas. In other words, the neediest schools are forced to comply with these guidelines in order to be reimbursed for providing meals to their students.

Some school districts and parents have rallied against these guidelines. While the majority of school districts are working hard to comply with the new standards, some school districts across the nation are refusing to adopt the new lunch standards, instead choosing to opt out of the USDA School Lunch Program.


Some school parents and school districts believe that these new standards aren't right for their children and schools. Here are some of the criticisms that are given by those who oppose the new school lunch standards:

The New Standards Are Overreaching  Some feel that the new specific standards are too strict and detailed, and therefore hard for schools to comply with.  The USDA claims that the standards were designed to be the minimum, and that many districts already had similar guidelines.  This argument against the new lunch standards echoes the sentiment against Common Core State Standards.

  In both cases, very defined standards are being adopted nationwide. 

Since the United States educational system usually develops policies from the local level, some districts feel that the new standards rolling out nationwide are simply too cookie cutter and won't be in the best interest of local areas.  

Children Won't Eat These Lunches  Some parents and school district lunch administrators alike feel that the new limits on salt, sugars, and fats combined with increases in whole grains, fruits and vegetables will necessarily lead to food that children simply won't eat

Schools in different parts in the nation noticed a drop in sales in their lunch rooms with more food being thrown away.  Parents have complained to their local schools that their children come home hungry after refusing to eat their school lunches.  

School lunchrooms have responded by adopting strategies to make healthier foods more appealing. Research from Cornell University's food lab has focused on how to present healthy food choices in lunchrooms that will encourage children to eat healthier foods.

It Is Too Expensive For Schools Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain tortillas, buns and brown rice typically cost more to purchase compared to the foods previously purchased to make school lunches.  Added sugars and salts also increase the shelf life of many foods, reducing the costs associated with refrigeration and making more frequent purchases.  Some schools also bemoan the lost revenue that from selling high sugar or high fat snack and dessert items.   

The profits made on the less healthy foods would be used to purchase healthier foods. The combined effect of the lost revenue from selling treats along with declining sales of the regular lunches has created financial challenges for some school cafeterias.

Schools have tried to recreate this revenue by adopting other fundraisers, adjusting their budgets, or using the lunchroom strategies mentioned earlier to encourage kids to buy healthier foods.

There Aren't Enough Calories  The calorie maximums for school lunches were based on research data for what the majority of children would need for lunch. The maximum calorie limits increase with age, ranging from 650 kCal for elementary age students on up to 850 kCal per lunch for high school students. Some people fear that highly active students or students that are very large for their age will not get enough calories to sustain themselves throughout the school day.  

What Happens To Schools That Opt Out of Following These Lunch Rules?

When a public school or district decides to opt out of the USDA School Lunch program, they are no longer required to comply with the standards. But opting out can come at a steep cost, especially for schools with a high percentage of students on free and reduced lunch programs. Schools that opt out cannot receive reimbursement for free and reduced lunch programs that are offered to children from low-income families. Instead, schools would have to cover the cost of the free or reduced meals themselves.

No school is required to provide free or reduced lunches to low-income children. However, while I was researching this article I was unable to find any information about a school that opted out of the USDA program that did not also provide free and reduced meals to low-income students. It is sound educational policy to ensure that all students have access to lunch and breakfast so that they may be able to learn while at school. 

By opting out and continuing to provide free and reduced lunches to some students, districts are having to find ways to make up that lost income from USDA reimbursement. Often, paid lunch prices increase to cover the difference. In high poverty areas, schools receive a high enough percentage of their lunch costs from USDA reimbursement that they may not even be able to consider leaving the programs.  

After taking a look at some of the criticisms that have led some school to leave the USDA School Lunch Program, it is worth looking at different ways that schools who remain with the program have found to make the program work.  The intent of the guidelines is to provide healthy lunches to kids. Many schools have adopted strategies to encourage children to try new foods, or found ways to afford the higher cost food items.

If you are a parent who is not satisfied with the lunches being served at your children's school, further articles at this site will help you find solutions.

Johnson, PhD Donna B. "Effect of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act on School Meals." JAMA Pediatrics. American Medical Association, 04 Jan. 2016.