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The National School Lunch Program — Change Is on the Horizon
By Christen C. Cooper, MS, RD

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which began under President Harry Truman in 1946, provides daily hot meals to nearly 31 million American children. That’s well over 5 billion lunches per year at an average cost of $2.68—30 cents below the cost of production.1 School lunch provides one third of children’s daily calories and nutrition. This government-subsidized program is a convenience for some but a necessity for the 19 million children who receive free or reduced-priced lunches. For many, it’s the most nutritious meal of the day.1

The NSLP has been permanently authorized by Congress, but its regulations are updated every five years under the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act. Advocates lobbied Congress to make updates in September 2009, but action was postponed until this September. In the eyes of advocates such as Chef Ann Cooper, school lunch reformer and author of Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children, regulations have remained largely the same since 1990 and need swift and serious reform.

So how are districts faring in the current landscape, what changes are on the horizon to reform school lunches, and what opportunities may await foodservice professionals in the new regulatory landscape?

Existing Regulations
Existing NSLP regulations state that over a five-day school week, the average school lunch must meet eight basic nutritional targets, including total fat content below 30%, saturated fat content below 10%, and one third or more of the Recommended Daily Allowances of calories, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, and calcium.1

A number of comprehensive studies suggest that many schools have not caught up with even the 1990 regulations. The USDA’s “School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study-III,” published in November 2007, indicated that 85% of schools served lunches that met the current vitamin and mineral requirements but exceeded the limits for total fat by 4% and saturated fat by 1%. The U.S. General Accounting Office released a report in May 2003, “School Lunch Program: Efforts Needed to Improve Nutrition and Encourage Healthy Eating,” indicating that some schools have made “measurable progress” but most require additional improvements in both food and nutrition education.

State of Wellness Policies and Nutrition Education
In 2004, as the childhood obesity crisis came into national focus, USDA regulations called for school districts to set up wellness policies and initiatives specific to their own needs and priorities. The USDA hoped to strengthen nutrition education nationwide and give schools the autonomy to decide what types of foods could be sold in vending machines and as a la carte items during lunch.2

One school district that created an effective wellness policy and successful initiatives is Byram Hills Central School District in Armonk, N.Y. The district formed the Healthy Choices, Healthy Kids Committee, comprised of parents (five of whom were RDs), administrators, students, and health and science teachers. The committee improved the district’s food offerings and its food environment. It brought in a school lunch vendor, managed by Melinda Lawrence, RD, CDN, that cooked healthful foods from scratch and was willing to adhere to the school’s sustainability policy. 

The committee now focuses on raising school lunch participation by hosting coffee hours for parents and offering food tastings for students. It also encourages teachers to incorporate nutrition, exercise, and overall wellness into the curriculum.

Some school districts focused on wellness long before the USDA mandate. One such district is the Burke County, Ga., school system. This district’s scratch-cooking foodservice operation, headed by Donna Martin, EdS, RD, LD, SNS, participates in a pilot nutrition education program offering fruits and vegetables as 2 pm snacks in addition to serving fresh produce at meals. During lunch periods, table tents provide information on the day’s snack, which ranges from jicama to pomegranate.

Also before the proposed regulatory changes, some independent school food vendors focused on using more fruits and vegetables in school meals and providing nutrition education. Red Rabbit, LLC, a growing school food provider in New York City founded by Rhys Powell, entered the market with a local whole-food focus. The company formed partnerships with the NYC Greenmarket and is guided by a team of pediatricians and RDs. It delivers farm-fresh meals to schools every morning. Red Rabbit offers RD-run professional development sessions for teachers and administrators that emphasize adult role modeling of healthful eating behaviors and attitudes. Red Rabbit also educates and informs parents via its family newsletter.

But the wellness programs at Byram Hills and other schools are not the norm in districts across the country. In July 2009, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released “Bridging the Gap: Local Wellness Policies,” a survey assessing the nation’s school health and wellness strategies. The study found that although the government requested local wellness initiatives in 2004, many schools’ policies were strikingly “underdeveloped and fragmented,” with poorly defined goals and plans for nutrition education. The report stated that only 5% to 6% of American children were enrolled in schools with wellness policies that possessed concrete funding for nutrition education. 

Additionally, a 2009 report from the Society of Nutrition Education found that only 65% of school districts provided any kind of funding for or staff development concerning nutrition.3 The ADA states that only 52% of American teachers receive any training on nutrition and wellness. These data may come as no surprise, since Team Nutrition, the federal money source for nutrition education, has historically received limited funding.4 In addition, school districts with fewer resources and less parental involvement end up shortchanged by this system.

Committee for Change
In 2007, the USDA, the body ultimately in charge of nutrition regulations, hired the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to write evidence-based recommendations for bringing school food regulations up-to-date with current science. Virginia Stallings, MD, the Jean A. Cortner Endowed Chair in pediatric gastroenterology at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, led the IOM team, which included several other physicians along with dietitians.

In an October 2009 IOM press release, Stallings said, "Since the school meal programs were last updated, we've gained greater understanding of children's nutritional needs and the dietary factors that contribute to obesity, heart disease, and other chronic health problems. The changes recommended in this [new] report are needed to assure parents that schools are providing healthful, satisfying meals."

The team also aimed to streamline the process of menu planning, encouraging schools to focus on food groups rather than on the specific nutrients in foods. The team believed the food focus would help students recognize healthful foods both inside and outside of school.

The IOM team presented the following recommendations: adding fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to every meal and raising the portion sizes; setting minimum and maximum calorie levels for meals; gradually reducing sodium over 10 years; and limiting milk choices to 1% and skim.5 (See the “IOM School Lunch Regulatory Recommendations” sidebar below for a detailed summary.)

Proposed Legislation
The new version of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act will likely contain provisions found in several bills that Congress is currently considering. One key bill is HR 5504, the Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act, which the House Education and Labor Committee passed in July. This bill contains improvements in food quality and nutrition education and it bans most junk foods in schools.

Another key bill is S 3307, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which contains provisions similar to those in the House bill and would raise child nutrition funding by $4.5 billion. This bill unanimously passed in the Senate and awaits a full congressional vote.

Although change is needed, the process of putting new regulations in place will not happen overnight, explains Jennifer Weber, ADA national nutrition policy manager in Washington, D.C. The hope is that the Senate will vote on its bills before the recess in August and that the act will soon be signed into law. But once the reauthorization has passed, the process will still continue with a proposed rule, a period of public comment, and finally a revised set of USDA school food regulations.

While the delay in passing the legislation has hindered change, it has bought time for advocacy groups to strengthen their pressure on Congress to make meaningful changes.

The ADA and like-minded organizations such as the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity and the Child Nutrition Forum have been lobbying and helping educate Congress on what’s needed for comprehensive child nutrition reform. The ADA believes this includes extending nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools, strengthening wellness policies, improving food quality, increasing nutrition and physical education, limiting food marketing to kids, and putting dietetic professionals in foodservice management positions.

The delay has also been fortuitous in terms of current publicity. The Let’s Move! initiative and the White House garden have spurred average Americans to consider exactly what kids are eating.

In May, the White House launched a childhood obesity action plan that recommends significantly raising school lunch funding. Brooklyn, N.Y., dietitian Judith Belasco, MS, RD, recently attended a summit at the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Belasco, who serves as food programs director for Hazon, a Jewish environmental organization, highlighted participants’ commitment to better school food. The group shared the belief that “school food provides the essential nutrients that kids need to learn, play, thrive, and achieve their full potential.”

But for school lunch to change and evolve according to evidence-based science, advocates say legislators, teachers, parents, and students must view school food as integral to academic success, health, and well-being. In addition, they must view the cafeteria as another classroom. Nutrition education is critical for students to make the connection between food and health, but it must be adequately funded to be effective. Most experts concur that the proposed regulations would make large strides toward bringing school food up-to-date with current science and curbing the growth in childhood obesity rates in this country.

Mixed Public Opinion
Support for upgrading school food options and expanding nutrition education is not universal. While most RDs and parents of kids who eat school lunch support increased NSLP funding, some Americans oppose it.

“Cultivating Failure,” an article published in the January/February issue of The Atlantic, criticized Alice Waters’ edible garden project in Berkeley, Calif. The author alleged that gardening has no place in education because it does not raise standardized test scores.

But the purpose of edible garden programs such as Waters’, which many in the dietetics field consider the gold standard for nutrition education, is to give kids hands-on experience with growing and harvesting food and providing something unique: the chance to turn some of that food into school meals.

There are numerous school gardens around the U.S. that are effectively used for nutrition education, and new gardens continue to be created and even funded by corporations and foundations.

There are numerous studies on the effects of school gardens on children’s learning. A large review published in 2004 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Revisiting Garden-Based Learning in Basic Education,” concluded that gardening is valuable in basic education because it teaches children numerous skills—from science and math to social and life skills. Furthermore, at a time of soaring childhood obesity rates, gardening provides physical activity and promotes familiarity with fruits and vegetables.

Opportunities in the New Regulatory Environment
The ADA has long encouraged foodservice providers to place RDs at the helm of school food operations. Today, only 10% of school food directors are qualified nutrition professionals.2 If the proposed regulatory changes pass, dietitians’ specific skill set will help position them as desirable candidates for foodservice leadership positions as well as other roles in the overall school wellness sphere.

But the ADA is not the only group rooting for more RDs in school lunch and nutrition education. On February 3, First Lady Michelle Obama met with school nutrition specialists, including many RDs, on Capitol Hill to encourage them to lead the charge against childhood obesity by helping improve school food.

If the new regulations increase funding for nutrition education, RDs with teaching experience may also have new opportunities for classroom teaching, nutrition curriculum development, creating and running after-school programs, and heading up local wellness committees.

In fact, the ADA and the ADA Foundation have recently launched Kids Eat Right, a campaign that will put more RDs in communities and schools, prepared to help shape kids’ food attitudes into positive, healthful ones. The RDs’ objectives will be to educate key audiences about a quality diet and diet-related diseases, advocate for quality nutrition, and demonstrate RDs’ expertise.

— Christen C. Cooper, MS, RD, is a Pleasantville, N.Y.–based freelance health and nutrition writer. She has worked in healthcare consulting in Latin America and the United States and holds a master’s degree in nutrition education from Teachers College, Columbia University.


IOM School Lunch Regulatory Recommendations


Current Requirement

New IOM Recommendation

Fruit and Vegetables

1/2 to 1 cup per day of fruit and vegetables combined

3/4 to 1 cup of vegetables, plus 1/2 to 1 cup of fruit per day


No specifications as to type or color of vegetable

Weekly requirement for dark green, orange vegetables, and legumes and limits on starchy vegetables

Meat/Meat Alternatives

1.5 to 3 oz equivalents (daily average over five-day week)

1.6 to 2.4 oz equivalents (daily average over five-day week)


1.8 to 3 oz equivalents (daily average over five-day week)

1.8 to 2.6 oz. equivalents (daily average over five-day week)

Whole Grains


At least one half of grains served must be whole grain rich


1 cup

1 cup, fat content of milk to be 1% or less

— Adapted from reference 5


1. U.S Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service. National school lunch program. August 2009. Available at : http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/lunch/aboutlunch/NSLPFactSheet.pdf

2. U.S. General Accounting Office. Efforts needed to improve nutrition and encourage healthy eating. May 2003. Available at: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d03506.pdf

3. Society for Nutrition Education. State of nutrition education & promotion for children & adolescents: Executive summary. 2009. Available at: http://www.sne.org/documents/SNENENPES630_exec_summary.pdf

4. Briggs M, Safaii S, Beall DL, et al. Position of the American Dietetic Association, Society for Nutrition Education, and American School Food Service Association—Nutrition services: An essential component of comprehensive school health programs. J Am Diet Assoc. 2003;103(4):505-514.

5. Institute of Medicine. School meals: Building blocks for healthy children. October 2009. Available at: http://www.iom.edu/~/media/Files/Report%20Files/2009/School-Meals/School%20Meals%202009%20%20Report%20Brief.pdf