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School Lunches Part 1: The National School Lunch Program
Whether you have a child in school already, or are planning to enroll your little one soon, there’s something you’re going to need to think about each and every school day: what about lunch? We are fortunate to have the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Let’s learn about this USDA funded gift to your school.

School lunch programs have been around for a long time, as far back as the late 1800s in some cities but usually supplied by an organization for the poor, to make sure children in technical training schools had something to eat during a long day at school. However, it was expensive, and the organizations had to rely on donations and available foods. In 1946, Congress passed the National School Lunch Act and the government started paying for food and equipment to set up school kitchens; studies had proven that children learned better when fed. The program grew to include elementary schools in the 1960s when school bussing began and children couldn’t return home for lunch.

There are two main functions of the NSLP: to make sure your kids have food to eat (if they don’t take a lunch), and to provide 1/3 of the daily recommended nutrients. Many children in the United States go to school hungry and then go home to a house with inadequate food available for a healthy dinner; the NSLP insures that they get at least one nutritionally balanced meal per day.

You are likely thinking back to the lunches served in your own school when you were a child, and you are remembering cardboard pizza, corn swimming in water, grey green beans and fruit cocktail with no cherries. I get it. But for many of the less fortunate students, these may be their only vegetables and fruits, and if you were lucky enough to bring a lunch, you didn’t have to ‘buy.’ (And be honest: didn’t you beg your parents for lunch money on pizza day, even though you wouldn’t touch it today?)

The NSLP gets a bad rap; I agree that the quality of many of the foods served was probably questionable, but the USDA has been working hard to remedy the problem by requiring whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables when possible and a trend to low fat foods in general. Milk can’t have any more than 2% fat, and although flavored milks are available, they can’t exceed 2% fat either.

What makes the NSLP even more appealing is its availability to everyone; even though your family might not qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches, you child can still buy them. School districts decide what their menus will be, what foods to purchase and who prepares it, so we have to stop blaming the USDA if the lunches are not very appealing. Unfortunately, the federal government only reimburses your school district for a small part of the cost of each lunch, and with rising food prices, schools have to be very cost-conscious. So that may be a good part of the reason that children don’t eat everything on their plates—it may not be up to their “visual” standards (meaning “it looks yucky”), or they may not have enough time to finish everything, so they eat the best stuff first.

We frequently hear that school lunches are making our children obese; this statement is only partially true. What’s packing on the pounds are competitive foods, the cookies, chips, soda, etc. your school is selling that are not allowed on the NSLP. I’ve written about those in my article titled, “The Other School Foods.”

Meanwhile, if your child buys lunch, and it’s the hot lunch supplied by the NSLP, you can be assured it contains healthy, balanced nutrition in a form that the children will actually eat—that’s why they serve chicken nuggets and tater tots. One way you can help improve the fruit and vegetable offerings is to ask if your school participates in the Farm-to-School program, another government program where local farm goods are used in the schools during the growing season. If not, encourage them to do it. Not only is it healthier and stimulates your local economy, but your child may actually start eating vegetables!

Article written March 2010
Susan M. Leisner RD, IBCLC, RLC Nutritionist & Lactation Consultant