School Meals and Snacks


School Meals and Snacks

Thanks to updated nutrition standards, school meals are now considerably healthier

Many children consume up to half their daily calories at school. Nationwide more than 30 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program and nearly 15 million participate in the School Breakfast Program. For children from low-income families, school meals are an especially critical source of affordable, healthy foods; 51% of U.S. children now qualify for free and reduced-price school meals.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA), the most recent iteration of the Child Nutrition Act, updated nutrition standards for school meals programs for the first time in 15 years to reflect the latest nutrition science, and increased the federal reimbursements schools receive for serving meals that meet those standards. The updated standards, which took effect in 2012, require more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fat-free and low-fat milk, and less sodium, saturated fats and added sugars. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a final rule to roll back some of the 2012 standards, including a delay in further reductions to lower sodium levels; the reintroduction of flavored one-percent milk; and the continuation of waivers for schools to opt out of whole-grain provisions. These changes took effect for the 2019-2020 school year.

Congress may consider a reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act during its 2019-2020 session.

Due to the social distancing measures put into place during the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts have shut down in-person learning, which have impacted 55.1 million students across the country. This has led to schools finding other ways to provide meals to students.   

COVID-19 relief measures passed by Congress enable the Secretary of Agriculture to issue nationwide school meal waivers, eliminating paperwork for states and helping more schools quickly adopt and utilize flexibilities. For instance, it allows schools and community distribution sites to serve meals outside of a school setting, which would normally be prohibited. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture can now approve state plans to provide emergency assistance—through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—to households with children who would otherwise receive free or reduced-price meals at school. The relief legislation has also provided $8.8 million in additional funding to cover food purchases and demonstration projects to increase flexibility for schools. 

As part of The Emergency Food Assistance Program, $400 million will be allocated to assist local food banks to meet increased demand for low-income Americans during the emergency including children who normally receive meals at school. 

Proposal to Weaken Standards

USDA has proposed updates to the school meal nutrition standards that would let schools offer fewer fruits, limit the variety of vegetables, and offer more processed foods that are high in calories, fat and sodium. If these changes go into effect, schools can offer fries as a vegetable and pizza, burgers, hot dogs, and other processed foods will appear more often in a la carte lines.

Learn More About the Proposal
Dr. Rich Besser, RWJF President and CEO

RWJF President & CEO Rich Besser Comments on latest USDA School Meals Proposals

The importance of school meals has taken on new urgency during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. At the time of this writing, school closures due to the outbreak have been multiplying rapidly, with multiple states applying for and receiving waivers from USDA to continue serving meals to students even when schools are closed.

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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.

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• Maintain nutrition standards for school meals that were in effect prior to USDA’s final rule from December 2018 (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.

See All Policy Recommendations

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


Nearly all schools nationwide have successfully implemented the healthier meals standards.

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Since 2009, USDA has provided more than $200 million in grants for schools to update their kitchen and cafeteria equipment.

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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.