Oh, no. Are we really about to complain that schools in the twenty-twenties are still serving buffalo chicken pizza, fries drenched in grease, and Monster energy drinks? Yes, yes, we are.
School lunches are a bit of an utter disgrace, and here are 15 truly unhealthy school lunch statistics that’ll make you wonder “…but what about the children?”
About the National School Lunch Program
- The federal government provides over $6.1 billion in cash payments to public schools through its National School Lunch Program (NSLP) plus another $4.7 billion for “surplus” foods like peanut butter.
- The NSLP serves more than five billion lunches each school year.
- The NSLP steps in by providing discounted or free school lunches to low-income households, particularly those earning below 130% of the poverty level.
- More than 30 million students participate in the NSLP each year, including the 15-million-member strong School Breakfast Program.
The Tightened Guidelines of the 2010s
Quick history lesson: President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act (NSLA) into law in 1946 to provide free or reduced-price lunches to students from low-income households.
In 2010, then-First-Lady Michelle Obama inspired the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which would uproot some of the previous guidelines, expand the program, and expose school districts to regular monitoring.
The monumental NSLP update slowly rolled out changes like:
- More whole grains on lunch trays
- Larger servings of fruits and vegetables
- A push for low-fat or fat-free dairy and lean protein
- Cutting the calories per meal
- Reduced sugar, sodium, and fat in school lunches
The only problem: Washington stood in its way (as always).
The NSLP Rollback (Or Not)
In 2018, in a highly criticized move, the Trump administration’s USDA Secretary announced, “make school meals great again” (which, unfortunately, was not a joke). The new, new guidelines would’ve unraveled much of the HHFKA.
The administration attempted to make school lunches “more appetizing” by delaying the requirements for sodium, dairy, and whole grain.
Unfortunately, this swung the door wide open to schools serving fast food, noodles, and refined grains while loosening the fruit and vegetable requirements.
A federal judge struck that down real quick in 2020.
School Lunches Are Struggling To Meet USDA Standards
What the Hell Is Going On Here?
The problem is that the 2010 update to the NSLP wasn’t effective. In fact, children living in poverty — who’d been at increasing risk for obesity year after year before the HHFKA passed — were now 9% less likely to be obese.
No, the real issue is that districts fall short of the guidelines or find loopholes.
For example, Domino’s advertises its own NSLP-compliant pizza — the “Smart Slice” — made with whole grain dough, lite cheese, and lower-fat pepperoni. The Trump era “flexibility” update also counted noodles made from vegetables like sweet potatoes as a serving of vegetables.
Many schools also blatantly scoot around the NSLP guidelines with a la carte lines that sell pizza and burgers, though the Smart Snacks update of 2014 hoped to tighten that.
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Despite Improvements, More Needs To Be Done
- Low-quality foods in school lunches have declined from 57% in 2013 to 24% in 2018.
- Disappointed by cafeteria food, many students choose to binge on snacks from the a la carte line or vending machines.
- The highly preferred a la carte line serves food like pizza, cake, and French fries.
Obesity Is a Problem For Many Kids
Are School Lunches Just the Scapegoat? Survey Says …
We can blame school lunches for the childhood obesity epidemic. Or, we can admit that children participating in both the NSLP and National School Breakfast Program (SBP) are still getting 53% of their daily calories (and then some) elsewhere.
Yes, School Lunches Can Be Gross & Unhealthy
Every now and then, a Twitter or Instagram post goes viral, revealing the pathetic excuses for school lunches — like brown slop in a bowl, raw burgers, or half-melted cheese slices on buns.
It’s no surprise that many students stock up on chips and soda in place of an NSLP lunch. Why choose a half-cooked sandwich or a salad with browned lettuce when you can grab a basket of French fries and chicken tenders?
A shocking 83% of schools had vending machines on-campus in 2005–06. And although many schools did away with their junk-filled vending machines in 2014, many schools still sell unhealthy snacks outside of the NSLP through grab-and-go a la carte lines.
But We Also Have Bigger Issues to Deal With
Students participating in the NSLP in the 2000s indeed had higher rates of obesity. But stating that the NSLP was causing obesity is like saying that importing lemons from Mexico single-handedly decrease traffic fatalities because they decline at similar rates.
The likely culprit here is good-old economics. (We can’t explain the link between the Mexican lemon and traffic deaths, though.)
The NSLP’s #1 goal was to provide low-income students with free or reduced-price lunch during the school year. However, a deeper dive into the topic revealed that low-income students — whether they ate school lunches or not — were statistically still more likely to be obese.
The reformed NSLP guidelines did reduce the odds of obesity in low-income students from 25% to 21% between 2012 and 2018, while the numbers were increasing in previous years.
But no matter how much the government overhauls school lunches, the issue will always exist until the feds step in to curb food insecurity and make healthy foods more affordable.
However, starting with school lunches is a great start.
Healthier School Lunches Can Help Improve School Performance
- Choosing the healthier lunch options brings a 340% greater chance of absorbing information in class.
- Children eating healthier school lunches have higher-quality diets full of fruits and vegetables and are less likely to miss school or perform poorly on tests when served breakfast at school.
… And It’s Not Just Test Scores That Are Improving
Forget building social skills, mastering content worth remembering, or improving 21st-century skills; test scores are seemingly the only thing that matter in the current educational landscape. If it weren’t, please explain the logic behind the Common Core curriculum. I’ll wait.
But a healthier all-around diet doesn’t only improve test scores. It also:
This here is a double-whammy! Cutting the potato chips, macaroni and cheese, and cookies will also decrease fat, sugar, and sodium intake — which have a reputation for causing fatigue and grogginess. Foods rich in protein, veggies, fruit, and micronutrients also cause an energy uptick.
This long-lasting, healthy energy carries over into after-school activities and allows students to maintain a regular sleep schedule at night. The more restful sleep they get each night, the easier it is for them to wake up bright and early.
Proper nutrition and brain health go hand-in-hand, and it’s common knowledge that micronutrients like magnesium and vitamin B can improve concentration and focus. National initiatives like the NSLP also tackle another issue — food insecurity.
Children from low-income households have access to affordable or even free healthy lunches. A meal to break up the school day helps students refresh their energy stores for their afternoon classes — which links to a stabler mood, enhanced memory, and better focus.
Better Overall Health
Perfect attendance awards should be outlawed. But a diet rich in vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients also strengthens the still-developing immune system, lowering the illness (like colds and cases of flu) that leads to missed school days.
How Unhealthy Are School Lunches?
School lunches are still unhealthy, but the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010 reformed the nutritional value of lunches.
By 2018, participating students increased their Healthy Eating Index (HEI) by 12 or more points, while non-participating students saw a smaller increase (or even declined).
That’s not to say school lunches in the 2020s fit the bill for being completely “healthy.” But there’s certainly progress, especially for schools enrolled in the NSLP.
While school lunches are healthier than they once were, there’s still a long way to go until they become the lunches our children deserve. However, as a parent, there are two ways you can tackle this issue head-on:
- Pack your kids’ lunches, don’t give them money to spend on snacks from the a la carte line, and pray they don’t swap food with their lunchmates.
- Teach your children how to make healthy nutritional choices from a young age and set a good example at home.
The ball is really in your court until America gets its act together for the health of our children.
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