Beyond the Stereotypes: Facts About School Lunches
March 10, 2008 -- The reality of school nutrition programs is too often ignored in favor of a ratings boost based on stereotypes and biased information. School lunches today follow federal nutrition guidelines and serve more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low fat dairy than ever before. On a very tight budget, school nutrition professionals are preparing and serving balanced, nutritious meals in an age appropriate portion size that provide needed nutrients and promote a healthy childhood weight. 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!
Oftentimes, people do not know the most primary fact about foods offered at school during the day. 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 basically all other foods that are not.
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 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 (NSLP) 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] NSLP participants are more likely than non-participants to consume vegetables, milk and milk products, and meat and other protein-rich foods, both at lunch and over 24 hours; they also consume less soda and/or fruit drinks.[ii] Additionally, researchers from the Ohio State University and Indiana University released a study in spring 2007 that indicated children are more likely to gain weight during the summer months as opposed to during the school year. The research indicates that influences other than school meal programs could be responsible for increases in childhood overweight.
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. The 2007 School Nutrition and Dietary Assessment III (SNDA III) study based on research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the 2004-2005 school year found that in about 90 percent of all schools nationwide, students had opportunities to select low-fat lunch options. Additionally more than 70 percent of schools studied served meals that provided all the nutrients students need for healthy lifestyles, including protein, iron, calcium, and vitamins A and C. In fact, National School Lunch Program participants consumed more of six key nutrients at lunch than non-participants. National School Lunch Program (NSLP) participation is associated with higher average intakes of many nutrients, both at lunch and over 24 hours. NSLP participants have substantially lower intakes of added sugars than do non-participants.[ii]
Myth #3: Schools don’t serve enough fruits or vegetables for lunch.
Fact: According to the School Nutrition Dietary Assessment III, the median number of all fruit and vegetable options (including canned fruit and cooked vegetables)
offered over the course of a week was 13 in secondary schools. [iii] The 2007 School Nutrition Operations Report conducted by SNA found that fresh fruits and vegetables are offered daily in 95.7% of schools.[iv] Furthermore, salad bars or pre-packaged salads are offered on a daily basis in over 88% of districts (at least one school per district) in the country[iv]. Vegetarian options are served in over half schools around the country, according to the 2007 SNA Operations Report.
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 limits on fat and saturated fat. This is because they 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. Pizza often has reduced fat cheese and whole grain crust, chicken patties and tenders are often baked and coated in whole grain breading. Increasingly school French fries are baked, made from sweet potatoes or are oven baked potato wedges.
Myth #5: Sack lunches from home are better than school meals.
Fact: Research by Dr. Alice Jo Rainville of Eastern Michigan University concluded that students who eat school lunches consume less calories from fat than students who bring their lunch from home. Furthermore, the research found school lunches contain three times as many dairy products, twice as much fruit and seven times the vegetable amounts as 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 and school board. Through federally mandated Local School Wellness Policies, school nutrition professionals are joining with parents, students and other school stakeholders to implement nutrition guidelines for all foods and beverages sold on school campuses. The School Nutrition Association actively calls on Congress to pass the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act in order to give the US Department of Agriculture the authority to set nutrition standards for all foods and beverages available in schools.
The 2007 SNA Trends Report is based on a survey of 200 school districts nationwide conducted in July 2007. The Report provides evidence of the continuing efforts underway in America's schools to promote healthy eating habits among children. Policies in place among a majority of districts include increasing the availability of healthier beverages in vending machines (81%), reducing/limiting trans fat content (74%), limiting fat content of a la carte/vending items (73%) and increasing the availability of fresh fruits/vegetables on a la carte lines and/or vending machines (69%). Policy deployment is increased for nearly every area from past years, including the percentage of districts with a policy that limits the fat content of a la carte and/or vending items rising to 73% from 38% in 2004.
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] Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. Final report submitted to the U.S. USDA of Agriculture. Children’s Diets in the Mid-1990s. Dietary Intake and Its Relationship with School Meal Participation. 2001.
[iii]US Department of Agriculture. School Nutrition and Dietary Assessment III, November 2007.
[iv] School Nutrition Association, 2007 School Nutrition Operations Report, August 2007.
[v] Rainville, A. Nutritional Quality of Reimbursable School Lunches Compared to Lunches Brought From Home, The Journal of Child Nutrition & Management, Spring 2001.