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School Meals and Snacks

PRIORITY POLICY

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. In 2019, nearly 30 million children participated in the National School Lunch Program and nearly 15 million participated in the School Breakfast Program. In 2016-17 roughly half, 52 percent, of U.S. students qualified for free and reduced-price school meals.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 updated nutrition standards for school meal 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. Research from USDA found that, between the 2009-10 and 2014-15 school years, meals became much healthier and student participation in lunch was higher in schools that served healthier meals.

In 2018, the USDA rolled back some of the healthier standards, including by delaying further reductions in sodium; reintroducing flavored 1 percent milk; and allowing waivers for schools to opt out of whole-grain provisions. These changes took effect for the 2019-2020 school year. In January 2020, USDA proposed further rollbacks 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. A health impact assessment from Healthy Eating Research finds that the proposal would “adversely affect student’s health and academic performance, and that students from low-income families attending schools in Black and rural neighborhoods are most likely to be impacted by the proposed changes.” 

COVID-19 Response

COVID-19 relief measures passed by Congress in March enabled USDA to issue nationwide school meal waivers, eliminating paperwork for states and helping more schools quickly adopt and utilize flexibilities. For instance, in the spring and summer of 2020 these waivers allowed schools and community distribution sites to serve meals outside of a school setting, which would normally be prohibited. But even with these flexibilities in place, a survey from the School Nutrition Association found that 860 districts nationwide reported combined losses of more than $626 million during the 2019-20 school year because of the pandemic.

USDA initially declined to extend the waivers into the start of the 2020-21 school year. However, following growing demands from school districts, and bipartisan inquiries from Congressional leadership, USDA has extended the waivers through the 2020-21 school year. The goal is that these waivers will give schools the flexibility needed to serve meals to students even if they are not attending in person. Every state, as well as American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Washington, D.C., is using some of the waivers.

The COVID-19 relief measures also enabled USDA to 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.

Recommendations

• USDA should support states in using existing waivers to serve free meals to all students through the end of FY 2021, 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.

See All Policy Recommendations
Brief

The Praxis Project’s School Nutrition, Food Procurement, & Equitable Community Development Brief

School food is important for all students, and especially for those affected by health disparities caused by structural inequities. This brief from The Praxis Project highlights how nutrition policy and procurement in K-12 institutions can advance health, justice, sustainability, equity, and community power.

Read the Full Brief

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
Boy selecting item in lunch line

Healthier School Meals Mean Healthier Kids

Meals served in school cafeterias across America are a lifeline for many families, particularly those furthest from economic opportunity. Many of the students who are the principal participants in school meals programs are also at highest risk for obesity, food insecurity and poor health. That’s why it’s so critical that school-day meals are nutritious. The latest research about the school meals nutrition standards found that by 2018, the prevalence of obesity among children in families with low incomes was 47 percent lower than would have been expected had healthier nutrition standards not been put into place.

Read the Full Study
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.

Read Full Comments And Learn More

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.

See Study

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.

See Poll

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

99%

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

See State Rates

$200M

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

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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.