Insight into School Lunches in America


Below is a video illustrating the extent to which this issue has grown:

This video is a report by a local news station in Albany, NY about complaints made by parents about the lunches that are present in the schools that they send their children to.

National School Lunch Program (NSLP)

Description (as stated by FNS): “The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. The program was established under the National School Lunch Act, signed by President Harry Truman in 1946.” It is the second largest nutritional service program in American after the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP).

Team Nutrition Initiative: Kitchen staff are provided with training to prepare and serve lunches that meet the nutrition requirements and also appeal to children by FNS (Food Nutrition Services).

Stats: In 2016, 30.4 million children were participated in the NSLP program according to FNS.

Click here to learn more about the NSLP.

The Food

To analyze the food that students consume at schools, let’s first start with what schools or the kitchen staff are provided to work with.


  • Processed
  • Packaged
  • Frozen (at times)
  • Pre-made

School lunches are usually shipped to schools via trucks. In order to ensure that they are preserved and kept in good condition through the journey, lunches are processed, packaged, and frozen (at times). Since they are pre-made, kitchen staff usually only need to un-package, heat up, set up, and serve food. There is no cooking involved in schools aided by NSLP.

Below are conditions in which the food is served to students. (This may not be the case for all schools aided by NSLP. However, according to multiple reports online as well as personal experience, these are some conditions in which school lunches may be presented to students.)

  • Burnt
  • Somewhat frozen/Under-heated
  • Contaminants present in the food (such as hair)
  • Rotten/Moldy
  • Fruit surrounded by flies



This table is taken from the electronic Code of Federal Regulations (Title 7: Agriculture, Part 210 – National School Lunch Program).


View the official menu for NSLP school lunches in the month of April 2019 here.

Upon examining this menu and more specifically, the main courses of each day, there is a great difference in the portions or percentage of food categories in NSLP school lunches compared to the recommended amount. There is a higher number/percentage of grains and carbohydrates offered and a much lower percentage of vegetables/food offered. In many instances, potato fries or french fries are considered to be the vegetables of the day. This raises questions about the thought process into creating menus. Are the menus designed to fit the bare minimum requirements, provide students with good nutrition, or to find the cheapest way to serve school lunch?

How Students Feel

“I don’t eat it because it scares me.”

Stacey Wong, attended P.S./I.S. 119 in Queens, NYC

“Public school food was consistently disappointing and misleading. It never reached the standard of food marketed towards students and denied students the access to healthy and fresh food which became especially problematic in underprivileged school districts.”

Mariyam Khandaker, attended P.S. 7 in Queens, NYC

“Now that I attend a private school with a high quality lunch service, I realize the poor quality of public school food.  When I used to eat pubic school food I never felt satisfied or that I was eating healthy. —— this is like from elementary school because my middle school has a healthy lunch service but I don’t know if my opinion is outdated or if they changed public school food. “

Camryn Dixon, P.S. 9 in Brooklyn, NYC

What do you think? Fill out this quick survey. Once you have submitted your response, you can view what other people had to say.

How Educators Feel

Ann Cooper is the founder of the Chef Ann Foundation which aims to help schools provide children with access to healthy school food. She prides herself in reforming the broken lunch system in a school in Berkeley, California and is passionate about fixing the issue of innutritious food in schools.

How Students Have Responded

  • Bring their own food. – Only for those who can afford or have the time to make food at home.
  • Buy food. – Most middle or elementary schools don’t allow students to travel outside of school perimeters so this applies mainly to high school students. Again, this the case for people who can afford to buy food in restaurants or delis near school.
  • Throw away food. – Often, students are seen resorting to throw out their lunches. In fact, as much as $4 million worth of food wind up in the trash.

Why does this matter?

Why does the food that children consume in school matter? Why should we care? These questions lead to the bigger question of why nutrition and paying attention to what you consume and put into your body is important. Studies show multiple benefits to improving the overall quality of food. Here are a couple:

  • Better learning and memory
    • In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Health Economics, a borough in England called Greenwich offered healthier school lunches as opposed to the low-budget, processed, and packaged food previously offered. Educational outcomes, measured by test scores and . Learn more about it here.
    • In a 2008 study published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, high levels of saturated fats (which is characteristics of) can impair learning and memory. Learn more about it here.
  • Improved concentration
    • A decrease in mental concentration is shown to be associated with vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Learn more about it here.
  • Better academic performance
    • Higher standardized test scores are seen to be linked to students who eat healthier school lunches according to a study done at the University of California at Berkeley. Learn more about it here.
    • Better exam scores and higher quality diets are shown to be associated in a 2008 study published in the Journal of School Health. Learn more about it here.
  • Reduced obesity
    • Children residing in states with stricter nutritional standards for school lunches display lower rates of obesity according to a 2013 study published by JAMA Pediatrics. Learn more about it here.
    • According to a more recent study done in Japan, the key to reducing childhood obesity is to increase the quality and nutritional value of school lunches. This study was published in the Journal of Public Health in 2018. Learn more about it here.
  • Better behavior
    • According to a 2008 analysis by the Harvard School of Public Health, “students with access to nutritious meals had lower rates of aggression and disciplinary problems.” Learn more about it here.
    • A older but still relevant series of studies conducted in the 1980s reported a 47% decrease in problem behaviors when chemical additives and processed food were removed and sugar levels were reduced in the diets of more than 8,000 juvenile delinquents in 12 correctional facilities. Learn more about it here.


It’s no secret that school lunches in America could use some improvement. But how can NSLP change? What are some methods or approaches to school lunches used by other countries? Let’s examine countries that are considered to have a successful school lunch system.


  • 5 course meal
  • Lunch menus given to parents
  • Recommends dinner/breakfast that the parents should provide in order to complement the school lunch.
  • Emphasize food safety and keeping the kitchen and food clean.
  • Find ways to incorporate vegetables and fruits into food that make it appealing for children to eat.
  • School lunches costs on average $6 per meal.
  • Make/cook food by hand.
  • Fresh food


  • Lunches are considered as part of education.
  • School farm where students grow and harvest food.
  • Make/cook food from scratch.
  • Health check before eating
    • Outfit: Face mask, hair net, apron
    • Wash hands
    • Rub hands with sterilizing gel
  • Students take turns retrieving and serving lunch to other students.
  • Express gratitude to chefs
  • Informed about the origin of the food they are eating
  • Eat all food, not leaving any leftovers
  • Practice good food/eating etiquette
  • Recycle milk cartons
  • Brush teeth after
  • Take part in cleaning and washing dishes.
  • Dishes used instead of paper or plastic plates/cups/utensils.

What YOU Can Do

  • Talk with your school cafeteria manager about how you can get involved with improving
  • Start a school garden. Here are some helpful resources to help you get started.
  • Talk to your principal or someone in charge about improving/establishing requirements for vending machines, concession stands, and the food sold in fundraisers.
  • Start Meatless Mondays.
  • Increase nutrition education and awareness by help implementing Wellness Wakeup Call by the Coalition for Healthy School Food which provides students with daily, healthy eating tips which can be read over the PA or in classrooms. Here’s more information about it.
  • Advocate for having recess before lunch or enough lunch time before recess, especially for elementary and middle schools. Often, recess time is one of the reasons why children rush to finish their food or throw away their lunch. Here is more information about it as well as a toolkit to help you get started.

Works Cited

Link to Videos

Share this project
  1. April 25, 2019 by Naman.Bharwani

    As someone who doesn’t live in the United States, and doesn’t go to a public school, I was extremely surprised when I saw this. Having a balanced and healthy meal is important, and I am glad that you are raising awareness to this issue.

    • April 26, 2019 by Tsering.Yangchen

      I’m glad that you enjoyed reading about my topic! Just out of curiosity, how would you characterize lunches at your school?

  2. April 25, 2019 by Jack.Wilcox

    Being a student that goes to a school with bad lunch, its very cool to see you dive in depth with what’s going on and how this is effecting people. Overall I liked reading through your presentation. Good job!

    • April 26, 2019 by Tsering.Yangchen

      Thanks for reading. I’m glad that you enjoyed my presentation!

  3. April 26, 2019 by Tashi Dorjee

    I had two kids in public schools and it really concerns me. The quality of food being fed to these young future seeds of this country. We really need to improve the quality of food in our public schools. Healthy food equals healthy kids and healthy kids can perform better in education as Tsering asserted. Great presentation, five stars!!!

  4. April 26, 2019 by Kabir.Singh

    Hi! I too focused on food, but it was really interesting learning about the situation of school lunches in America. I’ve lived in Africa majority of my life, currently residing in Nigeria, and though I go to America often, I didn’t really know what lunches were like. I was astonished by the state, and your research was extensive and thorough, which was great. You recognized a lot of different perspectives on this: An American Student perspective, a teacher perspective, a foreign example perspective, which was amazing. I truly learnt a lot through your work, not just about how poor the public school lunches are, but just also about food and nutrition in general. I go to a private school as well, and our cafeteria is served by a restaurant based in Lagos, which serves continental food. It is unhealthy, but it is a quick option for those who need, it but our school does a good job endorsing bring your own food. Do you think having a restaurant cater would make things better, like it is in my school? The food I get here is very tasty however not very nutritious so I was wondering whether one would accept having a delicious meal over a nutritious one?

  5. April 26, 2019 by Kennedy

    Hi Tsering! I think that you did a really great job on your presentation and that it is super through. I go to a private school and constantly hear people complaining about the food that our cafeteria serves; however, our meals are no where near as bad as the ones seen at these public schools. I think that the videos you included about food services in France and Japan are super interesting. Although these options obviously seem better, do you think that they are realistic? To me it seems unlikely that public schools would ever implement 5 course meals for lunches.

  6. April 29, 2019 by Isabella

    Hey awesome job! This is something I knew a little bit about but this definitely helped me to understand more. Out of curiosity in how many schools around the nation is this a problem? Is it only public schools that are affected? Also want to say that I love the videos, really added to your presentation

  7. April 29, 2019 by Hannah Robbins

    Thank you for shedding light on an issue that nobody really talks about. I think that this project shows just how important healthy food is in schools. One question I do have though is that if schools were to start providing nicer meals, would the money have to be taken from another part of the school budget?

  8. April 29, 2019 by Graham.Wolff

    Hey Tsering! Awesome presentation! I knew that having a balanced meal was important but I never realized the deficit that most public schools have. Going to a private school, I am pretty much in a bubble and it pains me to learn about situations like this and not be doing anything like this. Thank you for enlightening me!

  9. April 30, 2019 by Ingrid

    Great job on your presentation! It was very well written and thorough and I was able to learn a lot from it. I live in Tokyo and am aware of the lunch system here so thought it was interesting how you mentioned it!

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