Below is a video illustrating the extent to which this issue has grown:
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.
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.
- Frozen (at times)
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.)
- Somewhat frozen/Under-heated
- Contaminants present in the food (such as hair)
- Fruit surrounded by flies
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
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.
- Murphy, Kate. “Why Students Hate School Lunches”. Sunday Review, The New York Times, 26 September 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/27/sunday-review/why-students-hate-school-lunches.html.
- “April 2019: Pre-K – 8 School Lunch Menu”. Feed Your Mind, Food Nutrition Services, http://www.schoolfoodnyc.org/public/PDF_Handler.ashx?t=m&id=5291&name=Pre-K+-+8+Lunch+Menu.
- “Why School Lunches in America are Unhealthy and 10 Ways You Can Take Action to Improve Them”. Blog, Food Revolution Network, 29 August 2018, https://foodrevolution.org/blog/school-lunch-in-america/.
- Gunderson, Gordon W. “National School Lunch Program Background and Development”. NSLP – Program History, Food Nutrition Services, https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/NSLP-Program%20History.pdf.
- “The National School Lunch Program”. United States Department of Agriculture, https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/cn/NSLPFactSheet.pdf.
- “Food Waste in the National School Lunch Program 1978-2015: A Systematic Review”. Science Direct, Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2017 November, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212267217305981.
- J, James, and Belot M. “Healthy school meals and educational outcomes”. PubMed.gov, Journal of Health Economics, 2011, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21458872.
- Gomez-Pinilla, Fernando. “Brain foods: the effect of nutrients on brain function” NCBI, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Jul 2008, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2805706/.
- “3 Ways Nutrition Influences Student Learning Potential and School Performance”. Extension, 26 June 2014, https://articles.extension.org/pages/68774/3-ways-nutrition-influences-student-learning-potential-and-school-performance.
- MD, Florence, Asbridge M., and Veugelers PJ. “Diet quality and academic performance.”. PubMed.gov, Journal of School Health, 2008,https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18336680.
- Nestle, Marion. “School Meals A Starting Point for Countering Childhood Obesity”. JAMA Pediatrics, JAMA Network, June 2013, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/article-abstract/1675660.
- Miyawaki, A, J S Lee, and Y Kobayashi. “Impact of the school lunch program on overweight and obesity among junior high school students: a nationwide study in Japan”. Oxford Academic, Journal of Public Health, 5 June 2018, https://academic.oup.com/jpubhealth/advance-article/doi/10.1093/pubmed/fdy095/5033367.
- Arnold, Kate.”Why It It So Hard to Serve Healthy Food in Schools?” Outside, 23 February 2016. https://www.outsideonline.com/2057151/why-it-so-hard-serve-healthy-food-schools.
- “Wellness Wakeup Call”. Coalition for Healthy School Food, https://www.healthyschoolfood.org/wellnesswakeup.htm.
- “Starting a School Garden Program: Overview”. Kids Gardening, https://kidsgardening.org/create-sustain-a-program-starting-a-school-garden-program-overview/.
- “Recess Before Lunch”. Peaceful Playgrounds, https://peacefulplaygrounds.com/recess-before-lunch/.