Thousands of schools nationwide participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which provides federal assistance for meals prepared and offered in schools. Recently, the NSLP has changed their meal requirements in order to improve the nutritional quality of school meals. Below are ten facts about school lunches that will make you feel good about the meals being served to your children!
- The NSLP is for all students – Though the NSLP allows schools to provide free and reduced lunches to income-eligible students, the meals provided are not just for students of low-income families. All students can enjoy and benefit from the nutritious meals offered in their school’s lunchroom.
- School lunches follow the Dietary Guidelines – Every 5 years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) publishes an updated version of their Dietary Guidelines. These guidelines provide well-researched advice for healthy eating habits that will reduce the risk of diseases associated with dietary intake. The NSLP requires all lunches to align with the current dietary guidelines, which means students who eat school lunches are developing healthy eating habits that will serve them well throughout their lives!
- School lunches are age-specific – The new NSLP regulations now require schools to provide appropriate portion sizes and calories to students based on their age. Portion sizes are individualized for K-5th grade students, 6th – 8th grade students, and 9th – 12th grade students.
- School lunches are balanced – In light of the rising rates of obesity and chronic disease in the U.S., the need for proper nutrition and a healthy lifestyle is clearer than ever. The NSLP aims to ensure that the meals students are receiving in school are healthy and well balanced. School lunches now feature a variety of vegetables and fruits, low-fat dairy, and whole grains.
- School lunches offer a rainbow of color – It is no secret that vegetables and fruits are important components of a healthy diet. Vegetables and fruits are found in a variety of colors, each of which provides different nutrients. To help students gain all of the nutritional benefits of vegetables and fruits, school lunches are required to provide a specific variety of produce each week.
- Sodium is on its way out – Sodium is commonly found in salty foods but can be found in a many other foods as well. High amounts of sodium in a diet can lead to high blood pressure, which can damage the heart and kidneys. Children can easily adjust to salty tastes and develop preferences for salty flavors, with negative long-term consequences to their eating habits and health. In order to help reduce the amount of sodium in students’ diets and to encourage their preferences for less salty flavors, the NSLP is now requiring schools to gradually reduce the sodium content in meals.
- Dairy is still present – Growing children require adequate calcium to support their bones. Dairy products are excellent sources of calcium. Though milk was previously offered as part of the NSLP, the new regulations require schools to only offer low-fat or fat-free milk and dairy products. Low-fat dairy products provide students with an appropriate dose of calcium, without a lot of fat and calories that can contribute to obesity and heart disease.
- School lunches include more whole grains – Whole grains provide a variety of nutrients as well as fiber. Fiber helps keep children fuller longer so that they can focus on what is being taught in the classroom, not on their growling stomachs. The NSLP is requiring schools to make at least half of the grains served at lunch whole.
- School lunches are cost-effective – The NSLP’s new regulations have revamped school food into more nutritious and wholesome meals while still at a low cost. Students that are eligible for free and reduced lunches receive meals that are packed with nutrition but cost less than $0.40 per day. Students that are not eligible for free or reduced lunch are still receiving a bargain by purchasing school lunches. Quite often, the price paid for a healthy school lunch is less than the price of a packed meal from home. Many schools also offer budget-friendly payment options for parents, such as payment plans and online accounts.
- School lunches support academic success – Students spend around 6 hours per day in the classroom. Without the proper fuel, though, students can quickly run out of steam and lose interest in schoolwork. Nutritious meals, such as those provided by the NSLP, provide students with adequate fuel that can keep them energized and focused all day. Plus, a healthy diet will also support a healthy immune system, which means fewer sick days for your children!
USDA Food and Nutrition Services. “Healthier School Day: Toolkit For School Administrators
USDA Food and Nutrition Services. “National School Lunch Program Factsheet.”