School Lunch: Healthy, or Harmful?

By Mac Bettersworth, Reporter

Image result for kids in school cafeteria

In the U.S., there are almost 100,000 public schools, making almost 100,000 cafeterias. That’s about six times the amount of McDonald’s in the country. School plays an important role in how kids connect with what they eat; one in five children in America struggle with hunger, and many kids consume as much as half of their daily calories through school lunches. Serving healthy meals gives the opportunity to impact a whole generation with what they eat. Giving kids access to real, nutritious food is one of the most important things a school can do.

According to the third School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study (2007), schools consistently do not meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) fat requirements. Schools are required to serve lunches that have no more than 30 calories from fat, 10 percent of calories from saturated fats, and provide one-third of a child’s dietary reference intake for protein, calories, calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C. 

A survey from the 2004-05 school year revealed that most schools had 34 percent of calories from fat and only about 20 percent of schools met the regulated guidelines. About 70 percent of schools in the survey offered meals that had over 10 percent of calories from saturated fats. This was troubling due to the fact that 33 percent of children aged 6-9 were overweight or obese and had a higher risk of chronic health problems like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. 

To try to fight the growing obesity epidemic, the USDA proposed a rule in 2010 to upgrade school nutrition standards.The update was part of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. Some of the upgrades included increasing required fruit servings (from ¾ of a cup to one cup), vegetable servings (from ½ of a cup to one cup), and grain requirements doubled, with whole grain being emphasized.

Despite the fight to update school cafeterias to healthier options in recent years (2020), the USDA is easing up on schools and allowing them to serve more refined grains, reducing restrictions on sodium, and allowing more sugary, flavored milks.

The government needs to reimplement high standards for school food on behalf of this generation’s health. The next step is to advocate for stronger policies within the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR). Congress also needs to be urged against further weakening the school nutrition that had started to be implemented June of 2013 and put into full swing of the 13-14 school year. The Trump Administration has been rumoring since 2018 that they would finally ease up on the school lunch policies, but only finally did it near the beginning of the 2020 year.