School Lunch: Guidelines and Controversy

smiling girl in lunchroom
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When the federal guidelines for the National School Lunch Program were overhauled, growing concern about childhood obesity was factored in. Outlined in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA), part of the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, the guidelines include several requirements for schools receiving federal funds for their school lunch programs. The changes were rolled out over a few years to give schools and communities time to understand the guidelines and make changes as needed. That time, however, gave way not just to adaptations and adjustments, but interpretations and criticisms.

The School Lunch Guidelines

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:

  • Meals must meet both minimum and maximum calorie requirements for the age group to which they are being served, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards.
  • Bread products must be at least 50 percent whole grain.
  • Fruits and vegetables must be served every day; green, leafy vegetables must be served once a week.
  • Regular and flavored milk must be nonfat or 1 percent.
  • Foods cannot contain any trans fats that are not naturally occurring.
  • School districts must create a local wellness policy.

A 2016 study of a Washington state school district that was published in JAMA Pediatrics suggests that the updated guidelines are indeed getting schoolchildren to eat healthier. The study compared students' lunch buying habits before and after the guidelines were implemented to see if the change in meal composition had an impact. 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.

That said, there are conflicting reports that schools in different parts of the nation noticed a drop in sales in their lunchrooms and more food being thrown away after the guidelines were in place.

Funding Considerations

Schools must follow the HHFKA standards to receive federal dollars for their lunch programs. While some school districts only receive 1 percent or 2 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 up a small percentage of an affluent school's lunch program or almost all of the funding for programs in 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.

Common Criticisms

These school lunch guidelines are more specific and extensive than those of the past and are a point of controversy even today. Some school districts and parents have rallied against them, and they were even a popular talking point for Republicans during the 2016 presidential primary, with candidates promising to roll back the guidelines to allow saltier and tastier foods in school lunches.

Among the concerns held by opponents:

Overreach 

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 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.  

Meal Appeal

Some parents and school district lunch administrators alike feel that the new limits on salt, sugar, and fat combined with increases in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables will lead to meals that children simply won't eat

Parents have complained to their local schools that their children come home hungry after refusing to eat their school lunches, which the aforementioned reports of sales and discarded food echo.

Some school lunchrooms have responded by adopting strategies to make healthier foods more appealing. Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab conducts research dedicated to the presentation of healthy food choices in lunchrooms to encourage children to make better choices.

Cost

Some administrators note that foods that fit the guidelines (fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole-grain tortillas, buns, and brown rice, for example) typically cost more compared to those previously sourced to make school lunches. Furthermore, "approved" healthier foods tend to spoil quicker than those with added sugars and salt, which increase shelf life, making restocking and increased refrigeration cost concerns as well.  Some also bemoan the lost revenue from selling high-sugar or high-fat snack and dessert items.   

The combined effect of all of this plus declining sales of the regular lunches overall has created financial challenges for some school cafeterias. Some schools have tried to bridge the gap by holding fundraisers, adjusting their budgets, or making changes that encourage kids to buy healthier foods.

Sufficient Calorie Content

The calorie maximums for school lunches are based on research data for what the majority of children need. The maximum calorie limit for the meal increases with age, ranging from 650 calories for elementary age students to up to 850 calories for high school students. Some people fear that highly active students or those who are very large for their age will not get enough calories to sustain themselves throughout the school day.

Options for Schools

While the majority of school districts are working hard to comply with the new standards, some are refusing to adopt the new lunch standards.

For schools that decide that the new guidelines simply won't work for them, there are two main options:

Opt Out

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: Because schools that opt out cannot receive reimbursement for free and reduced lunch programs that are offered to children from low-income families, they have to cover the cost of those meals themselves if they choose to offer them.

Often, schools in this camp increase paid lunch prices to cover the difference. However, some schools in high poverty areas rely so much on lunch funds from USDA reimbursement that they may not be able to consider leaving the programs at all.

Exemption or Delay

In May of 2017, guideline updates were made at the federal level, and schools now have at least three years to meet the new requirements. In addition:

  • States that are having difficulty meeting the whole grain requirement can apply for an exemption.
  • Schools may serve 1 percent fat flavored milks.

Keep in mind that many schools have found ways to comply with the new lunch guidelines. Schools that delay or get an exemption may be able to comply in the future.

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 those remaining in the program have made it 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.

Parents can likely relate to the dilemma school lunchrooms are facing: how to provide a nutritious affordable lunch that children will actually eat. Keeping this in mind can help you shape your advocacy for better lunches at your child's school or simply better understand the changes you may be hearing about.

Sources:

Food and Nutrition Service, USDA. School Meals. www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/healthy-hunger-free-kids-act

Johnson, Ph.D. Donna B. Effect of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act on School MealsJAMA Pediatrics. American Medical Association, 04 Jan. 2016. 

Taylor, Jessica. Trump Administration Rolls Back Michelle Obama's Healthy School Lunch Push. NPR. 1 May 2017. www.npr.org/2017/05/01/526451207/trump-administration-rolls-back-2-of-michelle-obamas-signature-initiatives