#NSLW22: Celebrating School Lunches, Advocating for All They Can Be
Matthew Good, MS, RD, LD
Reading Time: 3.5 minutes
During National School Lunch Week (NSLW) 2022, from October 10th through October 14th, we have the opportunity to recognize a truly underappreciated program in the American education system, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Officially placed into observance in 1962, the actual program and official efforts to improve the nutritional status of millions of American children date back to 1946. The strides made over the decades undoubtedly deserve to be honored, especially with schools being recognized as the healthiest place Americans are eating.
It’s difficult to honor the program without dispelling common misinformation that gives the program some negative press, so let’s get this out of the way:
No, ketchup doesn’t count as a vegetable.
The NSLP isn’t forcing kids to drink milk, but it is an option available with every lunch.
Yes, fruit juice is an allowable option, but the NSLP promotes less processed and fresh fruit.
No, government-subsidized food is not low quality or substandard.
How does the NSLP address child nutrition?
Did you know that a school’s lunch menu must follow daily and weekly requirements that fall within the Dietary Guidelines for Americans?
In nutrition and dietetics, we use the term dietary reference intake (DRI), essentially setting minimum amounts of nutrients that healthy people need to stay healthy. Researchers are continuously refining individual nutrient recommendations while considering variables like age, gender, and life cycle. Yes, this includes every single macronutrient (carbohydrate, protein, and fat) and micronutrient (vitamins and minerals), as well as energy (calories), fiber, and fluids, all having a recommended level of intake determined for each group of people. This science is then made user-friendly by translating the “grams, milligrams, and micrograms” into food group servings. In other words, this is how many servings of fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, and meats/alternatives are best suited to help a person meet those individual nutrient needs.
Based on these DRIs, the NSLP defines meal patterns used when designing a school’s menu. The first step would be achieving a healthy caloric level. Based on a child’s grade level, thus age, a daily caloric average over a five-day week has been established and must be met on a school’s menu. Since lunch is one of the three main meals of the day, the requirement is for about one-third of the daily energy needed.
While it’s a necessary place to start, calories aren’t the whole story, ushering in the necessity for meal components. Like the food groups, meal component guidance establishes minimum servings from each group (fruits, vegetables, grains, meat/alternatives, and milk) to help a child meet their macro- and micronutrient requirements. Furthermore, the vegetable component breaks down into minimum servings from subgroups based on nutrition profile (dark green, red/orange, beans/peas, starchy, and other). Looking closely at a school’s menu, you should see a rotation of vegetables offered during a given week. And while juice is an allowable option as a fruit component, there are limits to its provision, thus promoting the selection of less processed and fresh fruit. There are even programs making available low-cost and no-cost local produce to schools.
Additionally, guidelines enforce a minimum whole grain provision, sodium and saturated fat limitations, and trans-fat elimination. The USDA contracts with food manufacturers of the highest standard (many of which are the same as those you buy at the grocery store) to guarantee subsidized foods meet these provisions and restrictions. These are known as commodity foods, available for purchase by schools at a substantial discount by being subsidized by government funding.
Offer vs. Serve
Amazingly, the NSLP even considers that kids can be picky eaters, and understands that forcing them to take unwanted, thus uneaten, food is both wasteful and fruitless (no pun intended). “Offer vs. Serve” is a school lunch concept wherein a child must take at least three of the five meal components offered to qualify as a reimbursable lunch. To simplistically reiterate, there are five school lunch components offered daily; fruits, vegetables, grains, meat/alternatives, and milk. Students must select a minimum of three of these components, and one of them must be a fruit or vegetable. The serving sizes of these components are also regulated.
Within the NSLP, the USDA sets forth regulations based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It’s the responsibility of school administrators, food service directors, and cafeteria staff to administer the program caringly and creatively with unique and appetizing menus while adhering to these regulations. State agencies are responsible for directly auditing these operations to ensure compliance.
Is it a perfect system? Not quite. School cafeterias face daily challenges, such as shifting student demands and what can seem like ever-changing and, at times, unrealistic regulations. Acutely, programs are battling inflation and supply chain issues. There are funding issues with subsidized meals and an increasing gap between free and reduced meal statuses. We’ve made great strides but still with a long way to go. With all of this in mind, we celebrate during #NSLW22. We recognize all the good the NSLP does. We advocate for the improvements to come. We thank all those who tirelessly work for the health of America’s children.