The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program used in more than 100,000 public and private schools, making it possible for all children to receive a nutritious lunch every school day.

The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program used in more than 100,000 public and private schools, making it possible for all children to receive a nutritious lunch every school day.

The program was formally launched in 1946, after an investigation of why so many young men were being rejected during the World War II draft process. It was discovered that many had physical or medical conditions directly related to childhood malnutrition, such as vision problems related to vitamin A deficiency or skeletal deformities related to vitamin D deficiency. To help improve the nutrition of American children, Congress enacted the 1946 National School Lunch Act as a “measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children.”

In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act as a response to the growing childhood obesity problem in America. This Act directly impacted the school lunch program by requiring strict nutritional guidelines aimed at improving the overall health of our children. The new guidelines are based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans and specify strict nutrition standards that must be met, as well as calorie limits for meals for different grades. With the new guidelines, the typical pizza or hot dog “heat and eat” type of school lunches is a thing of the past.

Although participating in the school lunch program is optional for schools, the cash subsidies and USDA foods received for participating ensure that most schools opt in. But in exchange for participating, the meals must meet current federal nutritional guidelines, and the schools must offer free and reduced-price lunches to eligible children. (Those whose income is <130% of poverty level for free, <185% for reduced.)

Beginning in January 2012, the new nutritional requirements for school lunch were implemented. The changes were significant and designed to be phased in gradually throughout several years. The 2014-15 school year is the year that most of the changes are to be fully implemented. The requirements include:

Daily fruit offerings for a total of 1 cup

Daily vegetable offerings for a total of 1 cup

Weekly vegetable requirement of dark green, red/orange, beans/peas, and starchy vegetables

Minimum of 8-10 ounces of meat weekly for K-5, slightly more for higher grades

Beginning July 2014, all grains must be whole-grain rich

Milk must be fat-free (unflavored/flavored) or 1% low fat (unflavored)

The first of 3 sodium targets is to be implemented this year, with <1,230 mg sodium (K-5) allowed for lunch. The second sodium target (2017-18) will reduce that to <935 mg sodium (K-5), and the final target to be implemented in 2022-23 will be <640 mg sodium (K-5).

Saturated fat is limited to <10% of total calories and zero grams of trans fat per serving.

It is up to each individual school to translate these guidelines into actual meals to be served.

Some controversy surrounds these new requirements: schools complain about the cost of implementing the new requirements, parents and kids complain about the food, and everyone complains about the food waste because kids are not eating the new foods. More kids are foregoing school lunch in favor of brown bagging, although some schools monitor this food, as well.

Manufacturers are struggling to reformulate foods for schools that meet the new guidelines. Especially difficult is the lower sodium requirements to be implemented this year. This summer, Congress has gotten involved with a proposal for a one-year waiver to these requirements for schools that can show they are losing money or possibly providing additional funds to help schools transition to a healthier menu or for equipment needed to prepare healthier meals.

Although I am in favor of more nutritious school lunches and see nothing wrong with the new guidelines, I don’t believe our children are fat because they have been eating unhealthy school lunches all these years. The reason kids are resisting the changes is simply because they are not familiar with these “new” nutritious foods, including many simple fruits and vegetables.

It takes multiple times of offering new or different foods to kids before they will accept or even try them. If kids are refusing these foods, it may indicate they have not been exposed to them at home. And, that’s the real problem. It’s difficult enough to teach children all the things they need to learn in school without giving teachers and staff the added responsibility of teaching kids how to eat healthfully. This is something that should be taught in the home, beginning with infancy. The childhood obesity problem isn’t the fault of school lunch, vending machines, “big food” companies or even advertising. It’s a lack of parenting.


Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.