School Lunch Reform

School Lunch Image - Masterfile

A school-food revolution is happening around the country. School lunches often contain some combination of French fries, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, tater tots, fruit juice, canned corn and iceberg lettuce—little of the food is fresh and a lot is highly processed, frozen, and reheated. And parents are unhappy: A 2010 survey commissioned by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation found that 63 percent of parents of school-age kids called the nutritional quality of lunch at their local schools fair or poor.

Improving school lunches poses a huge challenge. The government spends only about $1 per student meal—one reason four in five schools serve food that's too high in fat. And, says Christine T. Tobin, R.N., president, Health Care & Education of the American Diabetes Association, "schools are trying to serve what 'sells' to kids, what kids like, like chips."

But there's hope, and plenty of it: The National School Lunch Program, which feeds more than 31 million U.S. kids a day, has begun to improve the taste and nutrition of its fare. In a slew of schools, kids can now load a bowl with produce from a salad bar. Most schools no longer offer sugary soft drinks in cafeterias or vending machines.

Health heroes across the country are creating positive changes on a local level—from student garden programs like Edible Schoolyard, in Berkeley, CA; and healthy vegetarian options in the schools of Gwinnett County, GA; to the whole-grain breads, muffins and cookies served in South Duxbury, VT, lunchrooms.

Want to jump on the lunch wagon?

  • Join the school nutrition or wellness committee—or ask the PTA or principal about starting one. Check betterschoolfood.org for ideas on revamping your school's food.
  • Check lunch menus ahead of time; many schools post them online. Talk with your kids about healthy options, such as grilled chicken, not fried.
  • Eat a school lunch (or breakfast) with the kids, suggests Ann Cooper, nutrition services director at Colorado's Boulder Valley School District and coauthor of Lunch Lessons. That will give you a firsthand look at food quality and what kids are choosing.
  • Ask the food staff about their challenges. They're doing their best with limited resources, says Maryanne Tomovich Jacobsen, M.S., R.D., founder of raisehealthyeaters.com.
  • Find out about nearby farm-to-school programs—which help schools access local produce—at farmtoschool.org.
  • Ask about starting a school garden or growing veggies in classrooms. Kids who garden eat more produce, says a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. For tips, visit kidsgardening.org.
  • Get help from the Chefs Move to Schools program, which pairs chefs with schools.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 24 Aug 2010

Last Modified: 13 Jan 2015