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School Lunch Nutrition: What You Need to Know

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Updated on Aug 10, 2009

For some families, lunchboxes might as well be relics from the past. Why bother with packing the kids’ lunch when they can get a perfectly healthy meal at school?But, you may surprised by what you don't know about our national school lunch program.

School lunch service as we know it began in 1946 as The National School Lunch Program. Congress enacted The National School Lunch Act, which President Truman signed, in response to an abundance of men who were rejected from the World War II draft due to nutritional deficiencies.

Today, the National School Lunch Program provides meals to more than 30 million students nationwide. For those students whose families live below 130 percent poverty level (an income of $27,560 for a family of four), the lunch is free. Those who live between 130 percent and 185 percent poverty level (an income of $39,220) pay a reduced price for lunch, no more than 40 cents. And all others pay full price.

How does the program work? Schools that participate get cash subsidies and commodities from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as long as their lunches meet Federal requirements.

According to a USDA Food and Nutrition Service fact sheet, “school lunches must meet the applicable recommendations of the 1995 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend that no more than 30 percent of an individual’s calories come from fat, and less than 10 percent from saturated fat. Regulations also establish a standard for school lunches to provide one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories.”

That means that, overall, school meals are very balanced, according to Alexis Steines, Public Affairs Associate for the School Nutrition Association in Washington DC. “All school meals have to meet strict nutritional values set by the federal government, and there are also requirements that some states put into place over their program.”

The biggest problem, Steines says, is that students can choose food items from the a la carte lines that are not as balanced and nutritious as the actual school meal. “The dietary guidelines for the a la carte line hasn’t been updated since the 1970s,” Steines says. “So students can purchase beverages or snack items that don’t meet the USDA dietary guidelines.”

But Susan Levin, Director of Nutrition Education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PRCM), also based out of DC, says there's an even bigger problem than the a la carte line: the food pyramid that school lunch programs follow. Levin says the pyramid, which was created by the USDA, is flawed because it favors the interests of agricultural industry. Specifically, she says, the allowances for fat are too high.

"And eighty percent of schools do not meet the USDA standards for fat composition," Levin says. She explains that in addition to reimbursing schools for a portion of their lunches, the USDA gives the schools overproduced meat and dairy products for free--products that are fat and sugar laden. "The USDA is paying industry--huge corporations--for their overproduced goods," she says.

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