School Food Is Healthier Than Ever. Will It Stay That Way?

Out with the beef and cheese nachos; in with the oranges and yogurt.

School staff and students enjoying a lunch menu created to meet new standards at the Yorkshire Elementary School in Manassas, Virginia. U.S. Department of Agriculture photo by Lance Cheung via Flickr.

U.S. school food has earned a bad rep—much of it deserved. For decades, many school cafeterias relied on high-calorie processed foods: think frozen fish sticks, plastic-wrapped cookies, and plates devoid of fresh fruits and veggies. At the same time, budget-strapped administrators allowed vending machines to be stocked with soda and junk food. Many students ate diets packed with fat and sugar, and short on key nutrients like fiber. The consequences have become apparent: experts have speculated that American kids might be the first generation in history to die younger than their parents—and obesity is to blame.

But after the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed, that landscape started changing dramatically. In 2012, schools across the country began to implement new nutrition standards based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Dietary Guidelines forAmericans. As a result, today’s students may now be eating better than they have in years, with fewer empty calories and more fruits and veggies at school meals. However, momentum is needed to build on that progress and prevent backsliding under pressure from food industry lobbyists.

The U.S. first set up school nutrition programs to feed impoverished students during the Great Depression. Now most public school districts across the country receive funding from either the USDA’s School Breakfast Program, National School Lunch Program, or both, to provide low-income students with reduced-price or free meals.

Schools that participate in the programs must follow the new nutrition standards, which set calorie, fat, and sodium limits on all meals. Gone are the days of beef and cheese nachos loaded with 8.8 grams of saturated fat; that single menu item would exceed today’s fat restrictions for an entire school meal. Schools must also provide precedent-setting servings of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Even vending-machine snacks must meet stricter rules.

For Max, a third grader in Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD), healthier school food means more fruits and veggies and lower-calorie drink choices. Max regularly eats breakfast at school; oranges and yogurt are among his favorite foods.

“They’re kind of pushing towards healthier stuff,” he says. “Like there’s no more chocolate milk, no more flavored milk, just plain milk.”

That’s the type of change that helps kids get the nutrients they need, while cutting calories, and might even encourage healthier habits for life. In a new report, the Union for Concerned Scientists (UCS) notes that children’s lifelong dietary habits are influenced by school foods. The organization welcomed the new standards as an important strategy for combatting childhood obesity and getting kids the nutrients they need.

Meanwhile, lobbyists for the food industry were quick to argue that the new standards go too far. When policymakers proposed cutting down on starchy foods like hash browns and french fries, food industry players and senators from potato-producing states successfully blocked the move. Many food companies and groups like the National Potato Council have a stake in school meals—and a vested interest in maintaining a market for their products, while keeping production costs low. Those interests may be completely incompatible with the goal of providing healthier meals.

“The new standards aren’t perfect, but they’re the best we’ve ever had,” says Ann Cooper, Director of Food Services for Boulder Valley District School Board. “I certainly think they have the potential to help kids be healthier. It’s [only] one meal or sometimes two meals out of the whole day, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Cooper’s department provides meals for 52 schools in Boulder, Colorado—about 12,000 meals a day. Over the last five years, her staff has moved away from serving processed foods to providing fresh-cooked alternatives. That’s made it easier to serve healthy options, she says.

But Cooper suspects that many schools continue to rely on processed products. She explains: “The policies don’t say that the food has to be fresh. The policies don’t say that you can’t serve processed food. There’s a lot of room for improvement.”

In fact, when breakfast rolls around in LAUSD, Max often finds himself munching on prepackaged breakfast foods with hard-to-pronounce ingredients. “It’s like high-fructose corn syrup and xanthum gum,” he says. “I don’t even know if I’m saying that right. And polyunsaturated fat or whatever that is.”

For Max, fresh food—without processed ingredients—seems more appealing. But that requires kitchen equipment, trained staff, and adequate budgets. The UCS is calling for increased federal support to help schools meet the updated standards, but it’s an uphill battle. Currently, meals that meet the new standards are reimbursed at a rate that is merely six cents higher than meals that lag behind. It’s a paltry difference—particularly when you consider how cheap frozen french fries are, compared to fresh fruits and veggies.

Even with more funding, existing school meal programs may not be enough to meet the needs of some students. Some low-income students miss out on free meals because their parents never fill out the paperwork, explains Cooper. Others may skip them for fear of being stigmatized.

For the impoverished students who do access the programs, one or two school meals a day may not cut it. Over six million American kids live in “deep poverty,” meaning their families earn less than half the federal poverty level ($12,125 a year for a family of four).

Poverty poses real barriers to accessing nutritious food. They may get very little to eat outside of school. The food they do get may be short on important nutrients.

But there’s hope: a new federal grant initiative invests millions “to test innovative strategies for ensuring all American children have enough to eat.” The state of Virginia received one such grant for the Virginia Hunger-Free Kids Act Demonstration Project, which will provide all children at select schools with three free meals a day, along with additional support for low-income families. Providing free meals to all students may help remove the stigma of accessing free food and help ensure every child gets the nutrients they need.

For now, most students must rely on the new school food standards to keep their cafeteria meals up to snuff. Those new standards are undoubtedly a step in the right direction—and they must be protected and strengthened to prioritize fresh, wholesome foods over empty calories. Good nutrition in childhood makes a lifelong difference. Without healthy school meals, too many American students will continue to lack the foods they need to reach their full potential.