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9 things everyone should know about school lunch

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

1) School lunches started as an issue of national defense

Programs to feed students — especially poor and hungry students — date back to before the 20th century. But the federal government got involved in the 1940s, in part out of concern that kids were underfed and not fit for military service. During World War II, more than one-third of Army recruits who were turned away were rejected for poor nutrition. After the war, Gen. Lewis B. Hershey, the head of the Draft Board in World War II, delivered passionate testimony to Congress framing malnutrition as a threat to the US. That argument caught on. Democracy, warned Rep. John Flannagan, a Democrat from Virginia, "sprang from the loins of men of strong minds and bodies. And if it is to be preserved it will be preserved by the same kinds of men." The National School Lunch Program was created in 1946.

2) The National School Lunch Program feeds millions of kids

Since 1946, the program has expanded to provide milk, after-school snacks, breakfast, and summer food. Last year, about 31 million students ate meals provided by the program last year -- more than half of all students at public and private schools in in the US. Virtually all public schools, and many private schools, participate in the federal program.

Almost two-thirds of students participating in the lunch program get free lunches based on their family income, and another 8 percent pay a reduced price. The program cost the federal government $16 billion in 2013, including both cash sent to schools for the program and food that the US Department of Agriculture purchases directly.

3) School lunches used to be really, really unhealthy

Unhealthy lunch


If you think of school lunch, you probably think of pizza. Or chicken nuggets. Or nachos. You probably don't think about traditionally healthy food.

Nutritionally speaking, school lunches don't have a great track record. Until the recent changes to the program, pizza could be described as a serving of whole grains, a serving of protein, and as a serving of vegetables, a loophole Nicholas Confessore wrote about in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year:

Rather than count the two tablespoons of tomato paste on a serving of pizza as two tablespoons of tomato paste, they could count it as eight tablespoons of tomatoes, the theory being that at some point before being processed, the two tablespoons had existed in the form of several whole tomatoes.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in 2010 found that the most commonly offered foods at school lunch were junk foods — chicken nuggets, hamburgers, hot dogs, and the like.

This feeds worries about childhood obesity, because while all students can buy and eat the meals, students from poor families are eligible for free lunches or discounts. The lunch is free for students from families making below 130 percent of the poverty line -- about $31,000 for a family of four. Students from families making between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty line -- about $43,600 for a family of four -- pay no more than 40 cents.

Those meals really matter — and there's actually worry they could be contributing to the obesity crisis.

Students who get both free breakfast and free lunch are eating more than half their daily calories at school. And like everyone else in America, children and adolescents have been gaining weight over the past few decades. In 2012, more than one-third of children and adolescents were either overweight or obese.

Kids who receive free or reduced-price lunches are more likely than their wealthier peers to be overweight or obese. That's in keeping with national trends, where poorer adults are also more likely to weigh more. But a study published in Pediatrics suggests that nutrition guidelines on school lunches could have a role to play. Before Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, states had varying nutritional guidelines for school lunches, including some states with more stringent requirements than existed on the federal level.

In states with those stricter guidelines that required healthier meals, a lower percentage of kids getting free or reduced-price lunches were overweight, compared to kids in the same income bracket in states with looser nutrition guidelines.

4) New regulations are trying to make school lunches healthier — but they're very controversial

Healthy hunger-free signing

(Getty Images)

Lately, the school lunch program has been in the headlines because of a bipartisan law Congress passed in 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The law, which requires the federal government to issue meal guidelines based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine.

The actual regulations require school lunches to meet higher nutritional standards — and that's proved controversial.

Meals are supposed to have more whole grains, less meat and less sodium, and include at least one fruit or vegetable. If students refuse to take the vegetable or fruit, the school isn't reimbursed for that meal. Schools also have to offer a wide variety of vegetables — in one week, they have to offer starches (such as potatoes), dark green vegetables (spinach, kale, and other greens), red or orange vegetables (such as carrots or beets), and beans or peas.

But some schools and students have complained about new rules, saying kids are throwing out the healthy food and that it's more expensive to prepare healthy meals. Congressional Republicans have started to oppose the regulations (more on that later), which some associate with First Lady Michelle Obama's related "Let's Move!" campaign for healthy eating.

5) School lunches look different around the world

School lunch in Korea

School lunch in Korea. (Cali4beach)

You don't have to look too hard to find blogs chronicling the American school cafeteria lunch — many of the meals look disgusting, but every so often there's a hopeful-looking patch of salad. Buzzfeed rounded up school lunches around the world. Sweden's has lingonberry juice, like an Ikea. School lunch in Korea, above, looks delicious.

6. The federal government is also cracking down on vending machines

In the 2005 school year the USDA says students drank 452 million sodas, 26 million diet sodas, and 864 million fruit drinks. They ate 763 million candy bars and 1.4 billion desserts. On average, high school students who ate those foods consumed an extra 277 calories a day, the majority of them empty calories from foods without much nutritional value.

A lot of those calories came from vending machines and a la carte cafeteria options, which have been standard fare in American high schools.

That's no longer the case. Beginning this school year, everything sold in schools — even outside the national school lunch program — has to meet nutrition guidelines. Snacks must be under 200 calories, and foods must have some nutritional value — rich in whole grains, or have fruit, vegetables, protein, or dairy as a main ingredient, or contain 10 percent of the recommended daily value of important nutrients.

7) The new regulations are struggling because it's hard to get kids to eat their (non-pizza) vegetables


The Government Accountability Office has found some evidence that students with other options are turning away from school lunch.

1.2 million fewer students participated in the school lunch program in the 2012-13, the first year that the changes took effect, compared to 2010-11. The decline was among students paying for their lunches.

That might be because prices went up slightly for paid lunches — which was supposed to happen. The new law also required districts to charge students who don't qualify for free and reduced price lunches the full cost of their meals.

School food authorities — the people who run the school lunch program at the local level — also told the GAO that students complained about the green, leafy vegetables, the red and orange vegetables, and the new whole grains. And in some schools they visited, GAO researchers saw kids throwing away fruits and vegetables. But students at other schools ate them without complaint, and the report suggests that eventually students will get used to the changes.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that about two-thirds of school administrators report that students like the new lunches. Rural schools were more upset about the changes than urban schools — which could suggest either that rural schools are having more trouble with the new rules, or that the issue has become politically charged in historically conservative areas.

Meanwhile, Congress stepped in. The proposed 2014 omnibus spending bill would give schools a break on the whole grain requirements if they can prove they're struggling to find acceptable products.

8) School meals might still be too unhealthy

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University recently analyzed school meals and found that many school meals still contain too many processed foods and added sugars. Schools can serve canned fruit, fruit juice, and chocolate and strawberry milk, all of which can pack on the sugar. And while the guidelines limit sodium, saturated fat, and calories, they don't say anything about sugar or processed foods.

One big hurdle is cost. Another is tradition: feeding hundreds of kids every day at lunch is a challenge, and when school lunch workers have relied on frozen chicken nuggets and frozen pizza for years, shifting to less processed, more healthful foods is a big change.

9) Congressional Republicans want to scale back the new rules

The House agriculture budget for the 2015 fiscal year would have allowed districts to get waivers from the nutrition rules if their food service programs are operating at a net loss. The House appropriations committee voted to approve the budget, but a vote from the full House was put on hold until after the elections. Would a Republican Senate go along? It's not clear.

The waiver issue is just the latest political controversy around the school lunch program, which once enjoyed bipartisan support. In recent years, it's become a target of Republican criticism for encouraging government dependency. One member of Congress suggested students should have to do janitorial work to pay for the lunches. Rep. Paul Ryan accused the program of offering "a full stomach and an empty soul."

All this means that when the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is up for reauthorization any time after next year, it could become a source of political conflict.

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