Who decides what goes into school lunches?

Lunch trays aren't always a healthy or delicious sight. See more school lunch pictures.
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School lunches suffer from an image problem. Mystery meat, artery-clogging French fries and soggy vegetables are the stereotype, and plenty of controversy swarms the lunch tray. Is the food healthy enough? Are children getting the nutrients they need? Everyone seems to have an opinion. But have you ever wondered exactly who decides what kids eat at school?

The National School Lunch Program


The majority of America's schools participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which provides low-cost or free lunches to more than 30 million kids a day. Signed into law in 1946 by President Harry S. Truman, the government originally implemented the program to absorb farm surpluses, while simultaneously providing meals to school age children.

Any school district or independent nonprofit school participating in the NSLP receives cash subsidies and food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In turn, the school's meals must meet federal nutrition requirements. These nutrition requirements are as follows:

  • No more than 30 percent of the meal's calories may come from fat.
  • Less than 10 percent of the meal's calories may come from saturated fat.
  • Meals must provide one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories.

It's worth noting that many experts feel these federal nutrition guidelines are out of date and that the food distributed by the NSLP isn't much healthier than some fast food. President Obama's White House chef, for example, states the NSLP meals are high in fat, preservatives and high fructose corn syrup. Critics of the NSLP also believe that agricultural lobbyists influence the food and commodities donated to the schools through the program [source: Parker-Pope]. Parents and nutrition experts alike are calling for a complete overhaul of the program [source: Waters, Heron].

Meeting the Requirements

Schools meet the program requirements for school lunches in any way they choose -- as long as nutrition satisfies the federal guidelines. The NSLP is implemented on a national level and administered on a state level. Local school authorities make decisions on the specific foods and meals prepared and served. The USDA provides food service staff with guidelines on preparing nutritious meals, through a program called Team Nutrition. These resources offer tips to make cafeteria food healthier, with strategies on reducing fat, sodium and retaining the most nutrients possible.

Budget Challenges

Providing healthy school lunches within a limited budget is a challenge. Most schools today don't even have full kitchens due to school lunch budget slashes. Food is instead prepared off-site and simply heated up and served at the school. Moreover, here's a little-known fact about the NSLP: The reimbursement money given to schools must also cover everything from janitorial services to heating the cafeteria. Typically, schools receive about $2.50 for each meal they serve.

School Lunch Alternatives

Some school districts may find the NSLP unsatisfactory and choose to implement alternatives or supplement the NSLP. For example, the Farm-to-School Program aims to connect schools with local farms. Students learn about the journey of their food "from farm to fork," and local produce appears in school meals. School gardens also provide opportunities for nutrition education, as well as produce to round out cafeteria offerings. Of course, these programs require money and resources, and it's up to the school district to figure out how to get them.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Better School Food. "School Gardens." BetterSchoolFood.org. 2009. http://www.betterschoolfood.org/what_you_can_do/school_gardens.cfm
  • Farm to School. "About Us." National Farm to School Networks. 2006. http://www.farmtoschool.org/aboutus.php
  • Horovitz, Bruce. "Start-ups tote healthy lunches to school." USA Today. April 6, 2007. http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/food/2007-04-04-healthy-lunches-usat_N.htm
  • Laufe, Anne. "School-lunch reformers tackle cafeterias nationwide." Culinate. Sept. 10, 2007. http://www.culinate.com/articles/features/school_lunch_reform
  • Parker-Pope, Tara. "Obama's New Chef Skewers School Lunches." New York Times. Jan. 29, 2009. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/01/29/new-white-house-chef-skewers-school-lunches/?hp
  • Ralston, Katherine; Newman, Constance; Clauson, Annette; Guthrie, Joanne and Buzby, Jean. "The National School Lunch Program: Background, Trends, and Issues." USDA. July 2008. http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/ERR61/ERR61.pdf
  • USDA Food & Nutrition Service. "National School Lunch Program." USDA. July 2008. http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Lunch/AboutLunch/NSLPFactSheet.pdf
  • USDA Food & Nutrition Service. "Team Nutrition - Menu Planner." USDA. 2008. http://teamnutrition.usda.gov/Resources/menuplanner.html
  • Waters, Alice and Heron, Katrina. "No Lunch Left Behind." New York Times. Feb. 19, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/20/opinion/20waters.html?_r=3&emc=eta1