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School Meals and Snacks

PRIORITY POLICY

School Meals and Snacks

An essential source of healthy food for tens of millions of kids

For decades, school meals have been helping to prevent hunger and provide nutrients that kids need to learn and thrive. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated hunger and highlighted how critical school meals programs are for ensuring families have access to healthy food. 

In 2019, nearly 30 million children participated in the National School Lunch Program and nearly 15 million participated in the School Breakfast Program. Among participating students, 3 in 4 qualify for free and reduced-price meals.

Making school meals healthier

USDA updated nutrition standards for school meals in 2012 to align with current science. The changes included requiring more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and less sodium and saturated fats. According to USDA, 99% of schools meet the standards, meals have become much more nutritious since the changes took effect, and student participation is higher in schools that offer the healthiest meals. The healthier standards are also linked with lower rates of obesity among kids from families with low income.

Rolling back healthy standards

Yet, USDA rolled back some of the healthier standards in 2018 and in January 2020, proposed further rollbacks to let schools offer fewer fruits, limit the variety of vegetables, and offer more processed foods that are high in calories, fat, and sodium. Experts report the proposal, which has not been finalized, would harm student’s health and academic performance, noting that students from low-income families attending schools in Black and rural neighborhoods would be impacted most. 

Feeding kids during the pandemic

To help address hunger during the pandemic, Congress passed relief measures that enabled USDA to let schools distribute meals outside of the school setting and offer meals to all students free of charge. Schools nationwide can offer universal free meals through the 2021–22 school year, which will help more than 12 million children get the nutrition they need. 

Looking ahead

In the coming year, Congress will consider updates to the Child Nutrition Act–legislation that reauthorizes school meals and other federal nutrition programs. This marks a critical opportunity to alleviate hunger and support children’s health. In this committee hearing about the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) bill, Senators address the challenges of youth obesity and hunger, and advocate for expanding access to free school meals for children from families with low income, especially during summer when rates of hunger increase.

Recommendations

• USDA should support states in using existing waivers to serve free meals to all students through June 2022, as recently authorized by Congress.

• USDA should reconsider the rule it proposed in January 2020 that would weaken school nutrition standards and adversely affect student health and academic performance.

• Maintain nutrition standards for school meals that were in effect prior to USDA’s final rule from December 2018 (for whole grains, sodium, milk) and current nutrition standards for school snacks.

• Continue to implement and expand the Community Eligibility Provision that allows schools in high-poverty areas to serve free meals to all students, regardless of family income.

• States should implement nutrition standards that strengthen the federal standards.

• USDA should expand guidance and technical assistance to support schools in meeting updated nutrition standards and managing new school kitchen equipment.

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INFOGRAPHIC

Healthy Universal School Meals Help Kids and Schools

Studies find that when schools offer healthy free meals to all, it improves students’ attendance and academic performance, increases school participation rates and helps combat food insecurity, especially among students from low-income families. An infographic by Healthy Eating Research shows how universal free school meals are critical to children’s overall diet quality and helps reduce their risk of obesity.

View the infographic

How School Meals Help Families Impacted by the Pandemic

School meals are a lifeline to tens of millions of families across the country. In March 2020, schools in the U.S. began closing in droves in response to COVID-19. School nutrition staff sprang into action, ensuring that children– and their families– received healthy foods in their time of need.

Read the full story
Boy selecting item in lunch line
RESEARCH

USDA nutrition standards result in much healthier meals without raising costs

The nutritional quality foods and beverages offered in schools has improved dramatically between the 2009-2010 and 2014-2015 school years, thanks to USDA’s updated nutrition standards. Researchers find the meals are reaching kids from food insecure households and that serving healthier meals does not cost more. 

See the research

Featured Studies and Resources

Updated School Nutrition Standards Are Effective

A 2019 USDA study found that school meals are considerably healthier under the updated standards, with student participation rates in meal programs highest in schools that are serving the healthiest meals.

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Parents Want Healthier Standards

More than 70 percent of registered voter parents with school-age children support the updated school meal nutrition standards, according to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts poll.

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Healthier Standards Can Prevent Obesity

Harvard researchers estimate the 2012 nutrition standards will prevent 2+ million cases of childhood obesity and save up to $792 million in health care-related costs over 10 years.

See Research

In recent years, schools have made tremendous progress to improve the quality of the foods they offer to students. Virtually all schools nationwide have successfully implemented USDA’s updated nutrition standards, which took effect in 2012. This infographic highlights the latest research showing how school meals are helping millions of kids grow up healthy.

Fast Facts

47%

By 2018, the prevalence of obesity among children in families with low incomes was 47% lower than expected because of healthier school nutrition standards.

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4.8B

Schools served over 4.8 billion lunches to children nationwide in 2018.

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75%

Approximately 3/4 of children participating in the National School Lunch Program receive free or reduced-price meals.

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Data to Share

USDA found that school meals are healthier under updated nutrition standards. Nutritional quality of school lunches and breakfasts rose by over 40% with student participation in meal programs highest in schools that serve the healthiest meals.
According to Bridging the Gap surveys, 70% of elementary school leaders reported that students generally like the healthier school lunches; school leaders reported similar results from 70% of middle schoolers and 63% of high schoolers.
A Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity study examining 12 middle schools in an urban, low income school district study found that more students chose fruit after the healthier standards went into effect and students ate more of their vegetables and lunch entrees.
A Healthy Eating Research study examining 1.7 million meals served in six schools in an urban Washington school district found that the meals’ overall nutritional quality increased by 29 percent under the healthier standards.
Studies show that eating regular breakfast, including breakfast at school, has cognitive benefits, including a mainly positive effect on on-task behavior in the classroom and children’s academic performance.