Are school meals healthy? Myths and stereotypes abound, but the facts are clear when it comes to meals served through the National School Lunch Program: school meals are nutritious and an important part of addressing the childhood obesity epidemic.
What do “school meals” consist of? Know the facts!
There are essentially two types of foods offered in school cafeterias during the school day. Meals served through the federally funded USDA National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP), and foods served outside of these programs.
Meals served through NSLP and SBP are required to meet national nutrition standards by federal law. In return, schools receive reimbursement for each meal served. All other foods are typically served through vending machines, a la carte foods, fundraisers, class parties, etc. These foods, often known as “competitive foods” because they compete with NSLP and NSBP, are not required to meet federal law. However, they are also increasingly being subject to local, county and state laws that require nutrition standards.
Below are several popular misconceptions about school meals and the truth behind the myths.
Myth #1: School meals make children obese.
Fact: Students that eat meals served through the National School Lunch Program are more likely to be at a healthy weight. Research published in the August 2003 issue of Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine concluded that “girls in food insecure households had significantly reduced odds of being at risk of overweight if they participated in the [National School Lunch, School Breakfast and Food Stamp Programs].” The research highlights the importance of food assistance programs to low-income children not only in addressing hunger “but also in potentially protecting them from excess weight gain."[i]
Additionally research from 2007 found that students gain weight during the summer months when they are at home and lose weight duirng the school year when they are able to eat school meals.
SNA's 2010 Back to School Trends Report highlights the many ways that school nutrition programs are working to further improve the nutritional quality of school meals. The study reveals that:
- 95% of schools districts are increasing offerings of whole grain products
- 90.5% are increasing availability of fresh fruits/vegetables.
- 69% of districts are reducing or eliminating sodium in foods
- 66% of districts are reducing or limiting added sugar
- 51% of districts are increasing vegetarian options
Myth #2: Schools serve junk food for school lunch.
Fact: Meals served under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) must, by federal law, meet nutrition guidelines based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. No more than 30% of calories can come from fat and less than 10% from saturated fat. School lunches provide one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories. These guidelines apply over the course of one week of school lunch menus.
According to the School Nutrition Dietary Assessment III (2004-2005 school year), in about 90 percent of all schools nationwide, students had opportunities to select low-fat lunch options. SNDA III also found that school meals continue to meet or exceed virtually all of recommended daily allowances (RDA) for key nutrients analyzed for school breakfasts and lunches.[ii] No super-sizing here. The meals served as part of the NSLP are provided in age-appropriate serving sizes – making schools one of the last places in the U.S. where you can purchase a meal with the recommended serving sizes.
Myth #3: Schools don’t serve enough fruits or vegetables for lunch.
Fact: According to the School Nutrition Dietary Assessment III, roughly two-thirds of all school lunch menus offer more than the required two fruit and vegetable choices set by United States Department of Agriculture regulations.[iii] The 2009 School Nutrition Operations Report conducted by SNA found that fresh fruits and vegetables are offered in 98.8% of school districts.[iv] Furthermore, salad bars or pre-packaged salads are found in 91.1% of districts, while vegetarian meals are served in 63.9% of districts.
Myth #4: Schools serve fried, greasy foods.
Fact: Schools may serve French fries, chicken nuggets or pizza at times. However, because the meals are always required to meet the Recommended Dietary Allowances, the foods still meet required nutrition standards, including fat and saturated fat. Kid favorites are often baked, not fried, made with low-fat or lean ingredients, and served with vegetables, fruit and other options that make each meal balanced and nutritious.
Several innovative examples of what schools offer for lunch include ‘farmers’ market’ salad bars that feature locally grown produce, pizza with no-fat cheese or a beef patty made partially with vegetable protein. Many food favorites like pizza and French fries are made to specifications unique to school foodservice: crusts may use whole wheat flour or be enriched with soy protein, low-fat or non-fat cheeses are used a great deal, and some schools are even serving baked sweet potato fries.
Myth #5: Sack lunches from home are better than school meals.
Fact: Through the National School Lunch Program, according to 2001 research by Dr. Alice Jo Rainville, Eastern Michigan University, “reimbursable school lunches provided three times as many dairy products, twice as much fruit, and seven times the vegetables amounts lunches brought from home, which provided three times as many snack items.” The research also concluded that “reimbursable school lunches were lower in fat provided more nutrients overall provided more variety than lunches brought from home.”[v]
Myth #6: Soda is served with school lunch.
Fact: Federal law prohibits the sale of soda as a Food of Minimal Nutritional Value (FMNV) in the cafeteria during the school lunch period. State and local regulations may further prohibit the sale of soda before or after the lunch period or in other locations on the school campus.
Myth #7: Only junk food is available through a la carte lines and vending machines.
Fact: While few federal nutrition standards exist for a la carte and vended foods and beverages, school nutrition professionals are an active part of the national trend at the state and local levels to implement nutrition standards these items. School nutrition professionals help set nutrition policies at the local level through their state, county and local governments. Through federally mandated Local School Wellness Policies, school nutrition professionals have joined with parents, students and other school stakeholders to set nutrition guidelines for all foods and beverages sold on school campuses. SNA agressively supports consistent, national nutrition standrads for all foods and beverages available in the school environment.
Myth #8: What is served at schools is out of my control.
Fact: You can become active in setting policies at the local level! Join your local school board, write a letter and voice what you think schools should offer students. Wellness is a community effort and needs the support of the entire community.
School nutrition professionals are committed to providing safe and nutritious meals to all children. Parents are encouraged to visit their student’s cafeteria, try a lunch and talk to their school foodservice director about the nutritional profile of foods served.
[i]Jones et al. Lower Risk of Overweight in School-aged Food Insecure Girls Who Participate in Food Assistance, Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, August 2003.
[ii]US Department of Agriculture. School Nutrition and Dietary Assessment III, November 2007.
[iii]US Department of Agriculture. School Nutrition and Dietary Assessment III, November 2007.
[iv]School Nutrition Association, 2009 School Nutrition Operations Survey, August 2009.
[v]Rainville, A. Nutritional Quality of Reimbursable School Lunches Compared to Lunches Brought From Home, The Journal of Child Nutrition & Management, Spring 2001.