Public School Nutrition and Lunch Programs

Plastic compartment trays bring back school-age memories of the cafeteria lunch. It used to be that school lunch programs were carefully crafted daily meals served within the school’s cafeteria. Students could always bring their own lunch, but many opted for a hot food meal served during lunch hour. If time permitted, some would leave the grounds to eat somewhere locally. Some schools took part in offering two selections of ‘hot lunches’ comprising of various types of balanced meals. These might include chicken sandwiches, a cheese pizza, mashed potatoes and gravy, a baked potato, and usually fruit or a cookie for dessert. Drink options were limited to healthy choices such as milk, juice, or bottled water. At most, there would be a soda machine and candy/snack machine available.

Fast forward ten years, and you’ll discover an entirely new world. Many middle and high schools have now adopted a food-court style environment, with various companies even competing for spots within the cafeteria to serve their meals. Pizza Hut, Subway, Starbucks, even local Mexican chains offering tortillas and burritos now provide students with endless choices. The fast-food lifestyle is apparent and encouraged, and can determine eating patterns for a lifetime. There is no longer a need to seek out fast food outside of ‘campus’ since most selections are readily available. Some schools have also invested considerably in the dÃ?©cor and ambience of the cafeteria setting; cozy booths, cafÃ?©-style high-top chairs and tables, and even bar-style seating provide an entirely new social environment.

This atmosphere not only encourages the fast-food purchase, but enhances the entire lunch-time experience. It is a far cry from the days of yesterday when standing in line for the one or two hot meals served by the lunch ladies was the only choice to be made! Now, the students may decide on their entire meal, even including whether they would like one, two, or three different items from different vendors and brands. The marketing and advertising efforts of large-scale corporations increases the likelihood of lunch selections even at school, and sets the way for adult consumer choices.

Perhaps this is the downfall; nutrition certainly does not become a high priority in this setting. Socializing and eating with friends creates a highly involved environment of having fun, enjoying, and this can be encouraged through often unhealthy food selections. Eating fast food on a regular basis, especially from a young age, increases the risk of all cancers, heart disease, and contributes to the risk of obesity and diabetes. Sound nutrition is a thing of the past when the choices available are mostly highly processed, pre-made, and have little nutrition value. Any students who are lucky to bring their own food from home, have a low likelihood of sticking with it when dining in these types of environments. The convenience, atmosphere, and general ambiance is just too attractive. Many students also contend with the costs of these items; without set prices on the cost of one meal, many may find it difficult to support the daily habit.

When public schools first introduced on-site nutrition meals, they were generally calculated to meet certain nutrition requirements and even serving sizes to ensure costs were covered. Since students were paying just a portion of the costs, funding for these programs was a considerable project to be handled and organized year by year. The government funded program, although limited, at least ensured that all students that chose to eat at school were getting even the most basic and adequate nutrition. However, many schools still battled with the financial aspect of funding these programs well enough to maintain them, as well as ensuring that they could offer changing menus and low fat options.

A snapshot of the government-mandated program outlining the basic requirements per school was as follows. Type A was considered any child older than 12 years of age but would be flexible based on need.

Protein-rich food consisting of any of the following or combination: Type A Type B Milk 1/2 pint 2 pint
Fresh or processed meat, poultry meat,
cheese, cooked or canned fish 2 oz. 1 oz. Dry peas or beans or soy beans, cooked 1/2 cup 1/4 cup Eggs 1 1/2 Peanut Butter 4 tbsp. 2 tbsp. Raw, cooked, or canned vegetables or fruits, or both 3/4 cup 1/2 cup Bread, muffins or hot bread made of whole grain cereal or enriched flour 3/4 cup 1/2 cup Butter or fortified margarine 2 tsp. 1 tsp.


However, documented research provided an opportunity for change; reports showed that a large percentage of food was wasted, as students simply threw away what they didn’t like or didn’t eat. ( The American School Food Service Assocation, and the U.S. Department of Agricultur’es Food Service Association defined specific critera and surveyed many schools to find out about portions, budgets, and student opinion and feedback. They reported that serving additional choices such as Pizza Hut or Taco Bell, for instance, might cause, on average 25% less waste. As a result, many schools have chosen to increase brand-name food selections.

Brand names are critical components of middle and high school students’ lives, and today this is no different within the school environment. As schools continue to adapt and grow with this framework in mind, it is likely that smart nutrition choices will downslide as students become less likely to learn about adequate food and healthy eating. Ideally, students will be well-educated and prepared to either make their own food and bring it with them, or make better-informed decisions with the help of the brand names and fast food chains. The choices available will simply determine what these students eat; public schools can, and should, take a stand to ensure that the choices are sufficient for encouraging and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Education and lifestyle modeling go hand in hand; in today’s public school food court, there is little chance of a healthy lifestyle being the necessary outcome.

More information:

U.S. General Accounting Office. 2003. School Lunch Program: Efforts Needed to Improve Nutrition and Encourage Healthy Eating. Report GAO-03-506. Washington, D.C. May 9. Available at

U.S. General Accounting Office. 2003. School Meal Programs: Revenue and Expense Information from Selected States. Report GAO-03-569. Washington, D.C. May 9. Available at

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