You may have heard a flood of negative thoughts and actions related to changes in school meals recently – from uprisings and boycotts at the beginning of last school year protesting changes in school meals, to murmurs of kids coming home saying they don’t have enough to eat at school, to kids talking about how school food has changed. But there’s far more positive stuff going on than the busy, multi-tasking general public may [have time to] be aware of, so I thought I’d pass some information along.

Since I work for School Nutrition Programs at the State of Michigan, I’m going to try to minimize the commentary and opinion in this post, but want to explain things for you all in a way that’s easy to understand and focuses on basics.

Today, I want to give a basic glimpse of what schools participating in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program are working with and against to help folks understand more of the school district and regulator point of view. If you have school nutrition topics you’re a little fuzzy on and would like a simple explanation, I’m happy to help!

School Meals Background
Public, charter and private schools and certain residential sites for children (including halfway homes, juvenile detention centers and more) can participate in the National School Lunch Program and its sister program, the School Breakfast Program. Some states require certain types of schools to participate.

Schools agree to follow the rules (put together by the Federal government and any extra rules added by individual States) and serve meals that meet the guidelines and in return get financial compensation for meals. Schools also get a per-student allowance of agricultural commodities, which start off as unprocessed or partially processed foods (or, some choose cash instead).

Last school year, schools were required to start to drastically change the types of lunches and breakfasts they served.

Some studies have begun to show successes of these changes to school meals, in terms of healthier eating habits of students, student acceptance and the strong ability of schools to activate these changes.

Dayle Hayes, a Montana-based dietitian with a passion for promoting all things positive surrounding school meals, has a great blog, www.SchoolMealsthatRock.org. One of the features of the blog includes photos of beautiful and nutritious school meals from across the country. Take a look!

school meals that rock

Dollars and Cents
In return for money, or “reimbursement,” schools are required to provide “reimbursable meals” for the students they serve, meaning these meals need to meet criteria. Schools get a fixed amount per student; the exact amount depends on the type of meal or whether kids are at free, reduced or paid status (based on participation in certain programs, certain home life situations and/or income).

Though the amount that schools get varies slightly based on several factors, for breakfast, schools get around $1.60 for each student meal and for lunch, schools get around $3.00 for each student meal. That’s not much. For example, at McDonald’s, an Egg McMuffin breakfast meal will cost you around $3.00 plus tax. For lunch, a Happy Meal will cost you around $3.00 or more plus tax, and it won’t include any vegetables (and maybe not any fruit, depending on the combo chosen).

School Lunch & Breakfast 101
Last year, the meal pattern schools need to follow changed quite a bit. The changes stem from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which required that nutrition standards for school lunches and breakfasts match the guidelines in the latest version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Previously, meal patterns didn’t closely match current diet recommendations and were much more relaxed.

The new meal pattern updated meal requirements and broke them down into three age-grade groups, each with different quantity guidelines, based on the premise that a kindergartener doesn’t need to same amount of food as a senior in high school: K-5, 6-8 and 9-12.

The new meal pattern officially began last year, with the roll-out of requirements just for lunch. This year, part of the meal pattern changes for breakfast phased in. Some additional changes remain next year for breakfast. Next year, meals will also need to meet sodium limits and all grains offered will need to be whole grains.

A snapshot of what the meal pattern looks like for this school year is below.

Key Lunch Meal “Musts:”

  • Must offer milk, meat/meat alternate, fruit, vegetable and grain groups to each student. Certain schools allow students to pick what they want, while others require them to take the entire meal.
    • If schools let kids pick out which foods they want instead of serving the entire meal, they have to take at least a ½ cup of fruit and/or vegetable (can be a combination of fruits and vegetables).
    • Schools need to offer at least minimum amounts of vegetable “subgroups” each week – red/orange, dark green, beans/peas/legumes, starchy and other types of veggies.
    • Over the course of a week, there are limits on:
      • Calories, saturated and trans fat (sodium limits start next year).
      • Grains – Half of the grains over the course of the week must be whole grains (next year, all grains must be whole grains).
      • How much juice can be offered.
      • How many desserts can be offered.

Key Breakfast Meal “Musts:”

  • Must offer milk, grain and fruit or vegetable groups to each student.
  • Over the course of a week, there are limits on:
    • Calories, saturated and trans fat (the first of three long-term sodium limits starts next year)
    • Grains – Half of the grains over the course of the week must be whole grains (next year, all grains must be whole grains).
    • Desserts for breakfast.
    • Next year, schools will need to start offering 1 cup of fruits or vegetables instead of a ½ cup, and students must take at least a ½ cup of fruits and/or vegetables if they can choose their meals. Juice limits will also begin.

So, you can see that district and school food service directors and workers have a fine line to walk, between meeting requirements and offering foods in a way that kids want to buy and eat.

Do you have any success stories? Anything I covered that wasn’t clear? Or questions on things I didn’t cover? I’d love to hear it all!

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  • Adrienne-

    Thanks for this post. I think a lot of people do have a negative impression of school lunches – perhaps because we (who hold these negative impressions) had worse school lunches than are served today? I am involved in some research, however, showing that a majority of kids who bring their own lunches to school have far worse lunches than those served in school: brown bags full of prepackaged snacks packs, very few fruits (certainly a low variety of fruits), and almost no vegetables. Of course, there are those kids who bring lentil soup and kale salad, but they are not the majority – at least not where I live.

    I recently wrote about the importance of the school breakfast program – and about breakfast more generally – for Bolster Collaborative (your readers can find the post here: http://bolstercollaborative.com/blog/the-breakfast-effect/). As I say here, these school programs are so valuable for so many kids – especially those who are low income or food insecure. Rather than demonizing the school meal programs, let’s find a way to understand their needs and constraints and help to encourage the healthiest behaviors we can!

    Thanks again!
    Kiyah

    • Adrienne

      Kiyah, thanks for your comment! I’ll have to read and share what you wrote.

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