What’s for lunch? School nutrition standards are up for debate.

Another school year is upon us. Before sending their children to school, parents will weigh the pros and cons of participating in school lunch versus packing lunch at home. In addition to cost and convenience, nutrition is an obvious factor in this decision.

Children having lunch in a cafeteria
Image courtesy of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services SNAP-Ed Photo Gallery.

The federal government sets specific nutrition requirements for meals served in the school meal program. We’ve blogged before about the school nutrition standard changes made by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA). The new meal pattern requirements were based on expert recommendations from the Institute of Medicine. The goal was to help reduce America’s childhood obesity epidemic and reduce health risks for children by providing more nutritionally balanced meals.

The school meal overhaul included more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and decreased the amount of sodium and trans fat. Concerns were initially raised about the impact of the new nutrition standards on student participation and costs. In May of 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which funds and administers school meals at the federal level, delayed several of the planned changes on the basis that children weren’t eating the healthier school lunches. This ruling provided flexibilities to school meal programs on whole grain, sodium and milk requirements. Interestingly, other data from the USDA about HHFKA school meals implementation show positive participation trends. A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health also contradicted criticisms when they found that the new school meal standards did not result in increased food waste and significantly increased fruit and vegetable consumption.

It’s clear that the changes in school meals resulted in improved child nutrition for the 30 million students who eat lunch served at school. A recent article published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics shows that eating school meals daily is associated with healthier dietary intakes. This includes eating more fruits, vegetables, dietary fiber, whole grains and calcium.

To receive federal reimbursements, school meal programs must offer reimbursable meals that meet current federal nutrition standards. The Farm Bill is passed every five years and the current version expires on September 30, 2018. The new Farm Bill might impact school meal meals.

Overall, nutrition spending makes up to 80% of the total budget for the Farm Bill. Of the programs covered by nutrition, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, accounts for 95% of all spending. SNAP and school meal programs ensure access to healthy foods for over 16% of American households with children experiencing food insecurity. Nearly 14 million school-age SNAP participants were directly certified for free school meals during the 2014-2015 school year.

The Senate and House have both passed their own versions of the Farm Bill. Differences in the two bills will now be reconciled in a conference committee. The House Farm Bill directs the USDA to reevaluate school lunch regulations. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the nation’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, has expressed support for the Senate’s version of the Farm Bill. Their letter asked the Farm Bill conference committee to “reject any amendments in the bill that would make harmful changes to nutrition programs.”

We hope that Congress will consider the health impact of more HHFKA rollbacks and prioritize child nutrition in future school meal regulations. The USDA reports that students across the country are experiencing a healthier school environment with more nutritious options due to the improved school meal standards. Schools can support students in making healthy choices and help them shape lifelong healthy eating behaviors.