Are school meals healthy? Myths and stereotypes abound, but the facts are clear when it comes to meals served through the National School Lunch Program: school meals are nutritious and an important part of addressing the childhood obesity epidemic.
What do “school meals” consist of? Know the facts!
Oftentimes, people do not know the most primary fact about foods offered at school during the day. There are essentially two types of foods offered in school cafeterias during the school day. Meals served through the federally funded USDA National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP), and basically all other foods that are not.
Meals served through NSLP and SBP are required to meet national nutrition standards by federal law. In return, schools receive reimbursement for each meal served. All other foods are typically served through vending machines, a la carte foods, fundraisers, class parties, etc. These foods, often known as “competitive foods” because they compete with NSLP and NSBP, are not required to meet federal law. However, they are also increasingly being subject to local, county and state laws that require nutrition standards.
Below are several popular misconceptions about school meals and the truth behind the myths.
Myth #1: School meals make children obese.
Fact: Students that eat meals served through the National School Lunch Program are more likely to be at a healthy weight. Research published in the August 2003 issue of Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine concluded that “girls in food insecure households had significantly reduced odds of being at risk of overweight if they participated in the [National School Lunch, School Breakfast and Food Stamp Programs].” The research highlights the importance of food assistance programs to low-income children not only in addressing hunger “but also in potentially protecting them from excess weight gain."
Myth #2: Schools serve junk food for school lunch.
Fact: Meals served under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) must, by federal law, meet nutrition guidelines based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. No more than 30% of calories can come from fat and less than 10% from saturated fat. School lunches provide one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories. These guidelines apply over the course of one week of school lunch menus. The 2001 School Nutrition and Dietary Assessment II (SNDA II) study based on research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the 1998-1999 school year found that students in 91% of secondary schools and 82% of elementary schools had the opportunity to select lunches that were consistent with dietary standards for fat and saturated fat.
Myth #3: Schools don’t serve enough fruits or vegetables for lunch.
Fact: According to the School Nutrition Dietary Assessment II, roughly two-thirds of all school lunch menus offer more than the required two fruit and vegetable choices set by United States Department of Agriculture regulations. The 2003 School Foodservice and Nutrition Operations Survey conducted by SNA found that fresh fruits and vegetables are offered daily in 85% of high schools. Furthermore, salad bars are offered on a daily basis in over half of districts (at least one school per district) in the country. Vegetarian options are served in over 30% of middle schools and high schools around the country, according to the 2005 SNA Operations Survey Report.
Myth #4: Schools serve fried, greasy foods.
Fact: Schools may serve French fries, chicken nuggets or pizza at times. However, because the meals are always required to meet the Recommended Dietary Allowances, the foods still meet required nutrition standards, including fat and saturated fat. This is because they are often baked, not fried, made with low-fat or lean ingredients, and served with vegetables, fruit and other options that make each meal balanced and nutritious.
Myth #5: Sack lunches from home are better than school meals.
Fact: Research by Dr. Alice Jo Rainville of Eastern Michigan University concluded that students who eat school lunches consume less calories from fat than students who bring their lunch from home. Furthermore, the research found school lunches contain three times as many dairy products, twice as much fruit and seven times the vegetable amounts as lunches brought from home.
Myth #6: Soda is served with school lunch.
Fact: Federal law prohibits the sale of soda as a Food of Minimal Nutritional Value (FMNV) in the cafeteria during the school lunch period. State and local regulations may further prohibit the sale of soda before or after the lunch period or in other locations on the school campus.
Myth #7: Only junk food is available through a la Carte lines and vending machines.
Fact: While few federal nutrition standards exist for a la Carte and vended foods and beverages, school nutrition professionals are an active part of the national trend at the state and local levels to implement nutrition standards these items. School nutrition professionals help set nutrition policies at the local level through their state, county and local governments. Through federally mandated Local School Wellness Policies, school nutrition professionals are joining with parents, students and other school stakeholders to set nutrition guidelines for all foods and beverages sold on school campuses.
Myth #8: What is served at schools is out of my control.
Fact: You can become active in setting policies at the local level! Join your local school board, write a letter and voice what you think schools should offer students. Wellness is a community effort and needs the support of the entire community. School nutrition professionals are committed to providing safe and nutritious meals to all children. Parents are encouraged to visit their student’s cafeteria, try a lunch and talk to their school foodservice director about the nutritional profile of foods served.