What is the future of school lunches?

2012 was a big year…

Besides graduating from undergrad that fall with degrees in Dietetics and Consumer Foods,  I also had the opportunity to intern with a school nutrition director. I love working with kids (I even considered becoming a teacher at one point) so being able to combine that with my culinary and nutrition knowledge in order to implement, promote and teach the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle was something I was looking forward to.

I am grateful to have had that experience and the timing could not have been more perfect. In 2012, USDA made major changes the school nutrition program for the first time in years. I was able to see first hand the transition from old to new, I witness the challenges and accomplishments and, I like to think that I played a small role in making a difference in the lives of others.

It’s been 2 years since I interned with a school nutrition program and since the 1st school lunch changes have been implemented. I’ll be the first to admit that things were off to a bumpy start (for various reasons) but, have they finally improved?

Let’s recap!

Why were changes being made to the School Nutrition Program?

To put it simply, the changes were aimed at promoting healthier lifestyle, addressing childhood obesity and alleviating child hunger. After passing the Heathy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, funding and policies were put in place for key child nutrition programs such as the National School Lunch Program and the Summer Food Service Program.

Children spend more time at school then they do at home therefore, it’s crucial that schools create an environment that supports a healthy and active lifestyle. We also have an increase amount of families who are food insecure. The meal that these kids receive at school might be the only (healthy) meal they receive for the day. What happens on week-ends or during the summer? The After School Nutrition Program and the Summer Food Service Program ensure that student continue to receive meals (some programs also provide meals for adults at a low cost) when school is not in session. If you are in need of summer meals, visit: whyhunger.

What changes were being made to the School Lunch Program?

  1. The meal pattern was getting a complete makeover. When referring to lunch menu, we are looking at 5 main components: fruitvegetable, grain, meat/meat alternative and milk. The goal was to increase fruits and vegetable intake, promote whole grains, offer protein alternatives and low-fat and lactose-free milk choices. Additionally, school lunches also had to meet the new calorie, sodium and fat requirement. 

For a more detailed breakdown of the school lunch, click here.

How did these changes affect everyone initially?

1. School Nutrition Staff

  • We attended seminars and training sessions on the new regulations and deadlines.
  • We spent countless hours working on menus and trying to get all of boxes from red to green (this was a crucial step because ensuring that ALL the boxes were green meant the menu developed for the week met the USDA guidelines and had enough grain, protein, fruit, vegetable and dairy etc).
  • We worked with other school nutrition director and coordinators to alter and create recipes that met the new guidelines.
  • We saw an increase in food waste at our schools and a slight decrease in school lunch participation at some schools.

2. Students

  • They were frustrated and unhappy because they “felt like” they weren’t getting enough to eat. I say “felt like” because the reality is we were providing our students with plenty of options (possibly more than before) but they didn’t necessarily like what we were being offered.
  • Due to the new regulations, we had to reduce some of our portions. For example, instead of 4 pieces of mozzarella sticks we were now giving 3. It didn’t matter that we were offering and adding more sides to the menu because all the students saw was 1 less mozzarella sticks. We were offering more fruits and vegetables, we were slowly adding more whole grain products, serving baked chips etc.
  • Students at one of my schools didn’t particularly like that they couldn’t jump from line to line to create a “custom” menu.
  • But, we also receive a lot of positive feedback from our students. They shared their likes, dislikes and they thoughts on we could make it better.

3. Parents

  • They were frustrated that their children were coming home hungry… because they weren’t getting enough to eat.
  • They started sending children to school with packed lunches.
  • They also attended more PTA meeting and farm to school roundtables (which I think is great). Hearing from parents allows us to talk about our differences and understand each other. Parents who are passionate about school lunches can help motivate other parents and their children.

5. Food manufacturers

  • They also had to address the changes being made. In order to stay in business and meet the new requirements,  they had to alter old recipes and create new ones.
  • We (nutrition directors, coordinators, managers) attended food shows and tasting in hopes of finding the right products for our students. The shows I attended were mainly for the professionals but, they do have shows

6. Farmers/Farm to Table

  • As part of this healthy lifestyle and better school lunch options, many are trying their best to provide the school children with fresh local produced. But, the challenge has been finding ways of doing that while staying in compliance with the regulations already in place. School nutrition officials, farmers, parents, teachers and children are attending roundtable discussions to figure it out. Slowly but surely we are getting there.

Have things improved since then? How?

Absolutely! Of course there is always room for improvement but I have already notice the positive impact of the School Lunch Program.

  1. We are familiar with the new regulations and have been able to create menus, recipes that work.
  2. We are seeing less food waste and increase in school lunches again.
  3. We are seeing more salad bars and creative lunch options on the menu.
  4. We are seeing more school gardens. AND, teachers are incorporating them in their curriculum. Students have the chance to see where their food comes from; they help grow and harvest from the gardens. And, the produce from the garden is being used in the school lunches.
  5. We have a better understanding of how to make farm to table work. We are spotlighting farmers, spotlighting produce and recipes.
  6. We are doing more cooking demos and taste testing for the students.

What’s the latest in the news about school lunches and the summer lunch program?




Are you happy with the way things are moving? What would like to see change in the school lunch program? 


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