School Lunches

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School Lunches Evolution

School Lunches Evolution


As childhood obesity rates climb, attention is increasingly focused on the importance of improving the healthfulness of school meals. The prevalence of childhood overweight could double over the next two decades, according to a recent study from researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. While many factors contribute to childhood obesity, poor nutrition plays a leading role.

Because the school lunches served to millions of children every day have a critical impact on their health and eating habits, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) evaluates meals served in the National School Lunch Program each year. This year, PCRM dietitians analyzed elementary school lunches served by 20 school districts and evaluated the districts' efforts to promote healthful eating habits to students.

The results, which are summarized in a report card on page 8, show a major shift in the healthfulness of school lunches. Despite rising food prices, many districts have found cost-effective ways to improve their lunch menus. More and more schools are now serving fresh fruit, low-fat vegetable side dishes, and healthful vegetarian entrées on a daily basis. Many schools have also initiated nutrition education programs and other efforts to encourage good eating habits.

Unfortunately, some school districts continue to lag behind in serving healthful food to students. Menus in these schools are full of hamburgers, hot dogs, and other high-fat, high-cholesterol items, and students have difficulty finding healthful options.


The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was created in 1946 with the passage of the National School Lunch Act. It is now one of five federally funded child nutrition programs aimed at contributing to food security among low-income families. As of 2007, the NSLP serves approximately 30.5 million lunches per day at a cost of $8.7 billion a year.

Schools participating in the NSLP receive cash subsidies and commodity foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for each meal served, as well as bonus commodities when they are available from agricultural surplus. In return, participating schools must serve lunches that meet federal nutrition requirements and must provide free or reduced-price lunches for eligible children.

At the same time, childhood obesity has become an epidemic. The report says that low-income students are disproportionately affected by childhood obesity and they also make up two-thirds of the school lunch program participants.

The study showed that more than 50 percent of commodity foods are sent to processors before they are sent to schools. Processing these foods often means adding fat, sugar and sodium. So cheese goes on pizza, poultry becomes chicken nuggets, and fruit shows up in a dessert item.

In addition, the authors compared the recommendations from the USDA Dietary Guidelines, and the actual funds spent on federal commodity foods. In the report, you see an inverted food pyramid; the bulk of dollars spent on the school lunch program are for meat and dairy products, instead of fruits and vegetables.

Rising Food Costs

School food service departments have often faced tight financial constraints, but many schools have been hit particularly hard ...
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