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The State of America's School Lunches

The State of America's School Lunches

Eight individuals and/or organizations addressing school lunches and other nutritional issues

What is the State of America's School Lunches?

Public schools in the affluent suburb of Greenwich, Conn., where I grew up, are renowned for their quality of education. Their quality of nutrition, however, was something else. Even in grade school, my classmates and I recognized that the school’s lunches were virtually inedible. It was a widely held conviction that the hot dogs were made of rubber; some kids actually bounced them across the cafeteria floor. I'd rather not think about how much excess sugar, salt, fat, and artificial colorants and preservatives I ate courtesy of the Greenwich school system.

Click here for The State of School Lunches Slideshow.

But in 2010, President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. And that same year, the USDA released updated nutrition guidelines for the first time in more than 15 years, recommending new limitations on starch intake, calories, and sodium intake.

These changes are of unparalleled importance. Most of the nation’s children eat at least one meal per weekday at school. The sad reality is that many children eat only during school hours, so it's that much more important that the food they are served isn’t garbage.

It isn't just government that's trying to do something about the problem, though. Here are eight private individuals and/or organizations that are addressing school lunches and other key nutritional and education issues head-on — some with more success than others.

The Best Old-Fashioned Recipe Collection: 12 Cafeteria-Inspired Recipes

We all have those recipes that take us back to the good ole' days, y'know the days when we were still in grade school and eating school cafeteria lunches. Now, not every school lunch brings back happy memories, but there were definitely a few lunches that made us rush to the front of the line! We think you'll like taking a walk down memory lane with The Best Old-Fashioned Recipe Collection, which has so many tasty, cafeteria-inspired recipes for you to choose from. Who knows, you may find yourself making cafeteria food at home more often!

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Nothing that comes out of a box will compare to our comforting recipe for Homestyle Macaroni and Cheese. The little bit of extra effort to do it ourselves will reap such a big pay-off -- it's worth every moment!

This classic old-fashioned recipe is an all-American favorite that tastes so much better when made with your own fresh ingredients . Our Homestyle Sloppy Joes are sink-your-teeth-into-'em good!

Transport your taste buds back to the 50's with our Creamy Fruit Cocktail Mold. It's a jiggly treat that has plenty of creamy and fruity flavor. It's just as tasty today as it was in yesteryears!

There is no denying it. This is truly the Ultimate Grilled Cheese Sandwich. It disappeared so fast in our Test Kitchen it barely even had time to cool!

Crispy, crunchy, incredible. those are just a few of the words that come to mind after just one bite. Maybe you should make a double batch of this Buttermilk Fried Chicken 'cause it gets snatched up so quickly!

Can you guess some of the reasons we love this recipe so much? We love it not only because it's delicious, but also because it's no stress and no fuss! This No Fuss Salisbury Steak is easy and delicious- our kind of recipe!

By adding a few special mix-ins to instant chocolate pudding we've made an old-fashioned recipe that brings back some great childhood memories. We think Dirt Cups are always fun to eat, no matter what age you may be!

Why are these tacos so stress-free? Well, because your slow cooker does all the work for you and we think that's just great! After working hard all day, you don't want to stand over a hot stove to make dinner, so enjoy a delicious meal with no stress.

Our Potato Tot Nachos are smothered in seasoned ground beef , melty cheese, and other toppings before they're finished off with dollops of sour cream.

When you're ready for a change from plain old pizza, make this "wow" Pizza Casserole . It's got all the tastes you love about pizza in a whole new form.

Sometimes there's nothing better than a "good ol' American hamburger." In this case, less is best! This is a classic hamburger recipe that you'll turn to time and time again!

These eye-popping chocolate chip cookies are too big for your cookie jar, but they're so good they won't last long anyhow! Our recipe for Giant Chocolate Chip Cookies is amazing!

If you like these old-fashioned recipes, then be sure to check out our collection of Southern comfort recipes, too! Just click here!

National School Lunch Programs

While there have been improvements with the National School Lunch Program in America, in addition to individual states and school districts taking actions of their own, most U.S. and Canadian schools have a long way to go before they are serving healthy school lunches. (Canada has yet to pass a national school lunch program of its own.)

Because the USDA subsidizes lunch food in the U.S., schools are often at the mercy of outdated nutritional standards that are designed to support industrialized agriculture over the needs of growing bodies and minds. Sadly, although school food service departments do get reimbursed for many of the meals they serve, their cost sometimes adds up to more than the reimbursement. This along with a growing school lunch debt problem, poor nutritional education, and increasing food costs, all contribute to meals high in subsidized factory farmed animal products, sugar, white flour, and other processed foods.

For parents who can afford it, having kids bring healthy options to school is a great way to go. But as long as tens of millions of families depend on school meals for a fundamental part of daily nutrition, we all have a stake in making them healthier.

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These Days, School Lunch Hours Are More Like 15 Minutes

Students at Lowell High School in Michigan sit down for lunch. Shorter lunch breaks mean that many kids don't get enough time to eat and socialize.

It's lunchtime at Oakland High School in Oakland, Calif., and that means fence hoppers. Several kids wear mischievous grins as they speedily scale a 12-foot-high metal perimeter.

In theory, anyway, Oakland High is a "closed campus." That's done in the interest of safety and security and to cut down on school-skipping. It means kids can't leave during school hours without parental consent, especially at lunchtime. But it doesn't stop several students from breaking out.

Inside the cafeteria the lines are long, and complaints about the food are as plentiful as the fence jumpers.

Today's lunch is "popcorn chicken," potatoes and tamales. A plastic bowl with little packets of carrot sticks looks lonely.

The food is dry and burned, says freshman Mary Thomas. "It's just nasty."

And junior Olivia Moore says the lines leave little time to actually eat and socialize.

"I need more time because I eat slow and then, there's not enough free time," Moore says.

The school lunch hour in America is a long-gone relic. At many public schools today, kids are lucky to get more than 15 minutes to eat. Some get even less time.

And parents and administrators are concerned that a lack of time to eat is unhealthful, especially given that about one-third of American kids are overweight or obese.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that students get at least 20 minutes for lunch. But that means 20 minutes to actually sit down and eat — excluding time waiting in line or walking from class to cafeteria.

The Salt

This Is What America's School Lunches Really Look Like

At Oakland High, over 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. And officially, students get about 40 minutes for the meal. But Jennifer LeBarre, Oakland Unified School District's nutrition services director, admits that the actual table time is far shorter. At times it's just 10 minutes.


Moms Sell Healthy Lunches For Kids At School

"I think it's a legitimate complaint that there's not enough time to eat," LeBarre says. "If we are being asked to eat our lunch in 10 minutes, that's not enough for us. So I really think we need to really work more for the 20-minute table time."

Oakland High is hardly alone. In a wide-ranging new poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, 20 percent of parents of students from kindergarten through fifth grade surveyed said their child only gets 15 minutes or less to eat.

Ironically, relatively new federal school-nutrition guideline changes may be making the situation worse. Under federal rules, schools have to increase the availability and consumption of fruits and vegetables — among other changes. It's part of an effort to improve nutrition and combat childhood obesity.

But eating more healthful foods can take more time, LeBarre says. "It's going to take longer to eat a salad than it will to eat french fries."

At many schools, lunch schedules aren't changing. Julia Bauscher, who is president of a national advocacy group called the School Nutrition Association, says administrators are under intense pressure to increase instruction time and boost standardized test scores. The lunch period is often the first place they look to steal time.

"[They've] got to get in this many instructional minutes, and this is our expected annual yearly progress on the test," she says. "You've got two important and competing priorities there."

Exacerbating the time crunch, nationally, is the reality that more students are taking part in the free or reduced-cost school lunch programs. Many schools are now adding free dinners as well under a new USDA dinner program launched this year. Bauscher is also the nutrition services director for Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky. She says in her area, 70 percent of the students are participating in meals programs — including free dinners for some.

"We've got a higher number of students eligible for free and reduced meals than ever. So as more of them take advantage of those programs, you get longer food lines," she says.

Some possible solutions — such as adding lunch periods, more food stations or service workers or lengthening lunchtimes — can be costly. And many budget-strapped schools today simply don't want to risk the added price.

Nicola Edwards of California Food Policy Advocates says parents need to be central to any solution. Parents can't effectively preach to kids about healthful food and quality lunchtime, she says, and then model grabbing something unhealthful on the go.

"Parents need to be modeling good eating behaviors, and not shoving food through the window in the back of the car as they're on their way to work or to school," Edwards says. "Part of helping people is really making them understand the importance of eating and taking the time to eat. "

National School Lunch Program

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is the Nation's second largest food and nutrition assistance program. In fiscal year (FY) 2019, it operated in nearly 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools (grades PK-12) and residential child care institutions. The NSLP provided low-cost or free lunches to 29.4 million children daily at a total cost of $14.1 billion. Average participation was less than 1 percent below that of the previous FY and about 8 percent lower than in FY 2011, when average participation peaked at 31.8 million children.

Any student in a participating school can get an NSLP lunch regardless of the student's household income. Eligible students can receive free or reduced-price lunches:

  • Free lunches are available to children in households with incomes at or below 130 percent of poverty.
  • Reduced-price lunches are available to children in households with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of poverty.

In FY 2019, school cafeterias served nearly 5 billion lunches, with nearly three-quarters of the lunches free or at a reduced price. ERS-sponsored research found that children from food-insecure and marginally secure households were more likely to eat school meals and received more of their food and nutrient intake from school meals than did other children (see Children's Food Security and Intakes from School Meals: Final Report).

USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) administers the NSLP and reimburses participating schools' food service departments for the meals served to students. Meals are required to meet nutrition standards as part of the changes required by Congressional reauthorization of the program in 2010, NSLP nutrition standards were updated to more closely match the Federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Within their cost constraints, school food service programs face continuing challenges to provide healthy and appealing meals that encourage student participation. This is especially true in smaller districts and certain regions that face higher food costs. See the reports:

In response to concerns about the role of the school meal environment in children's diets and other issues, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 established updated nutrition standards for school meals and for non-USDA foods (often called "competitive foods") sold at schools participating in USDA's school meal programs. The legislation authorized an additional 6-cent payment for each meal when schools demonstrated that they were serving meals that met the new standards the legislation also established new regulations for meal prices charged to students not certified for free or reduced-price meals. The Act also created the Community Eligibility Provision, an option that allows high-poverty schools to offer free meals to all students. See the report:

USDA also encourages school districts to use locally-produced foods in school meals and to use "farm-to-school" activities to spark students' interest in trying new foods. More than 4 in 10 U.S school districts reported participating in farm-to-school activities, which includes serving local foods, in the 2013-14 or 2014-15 school years. A recent ERS study found that school districts with enrollment above 5,000 students, urban districts, and districts located in counties with a higher density of farmers' markets were more likely to serve local foods daily. Higher-income districts, those districts with higher levels of college attendance, and districts in States with more legislated policies supporting farm-to-school programs were also more likely to serve local foods daily. See the report:

5-Day Menus

  • K-8, Lunch Sample Menu &mdash 5 Day [ 144.2 kB ]
  • 9-12, Lunch Sample Menu &mdash 5 Day [ 151.9 kB ]

7-Day Menus

  • K-8, Lunch Sample Menu &mdash 7 Day [ 169.2 kB ]
  • 9-12, Lunch Sample Menu &mdash 7 Day [ 156.7 kB ]

Multicultural Menus

  • K-5, Lunch Sample Menu &mdash 5 Day [ 186.4 kB ]
  • 6-8, Lunch Sample Menu &mdash 5 Day [ 188.9 kB ]
  • 9-12, Lunch Sample Menu &mdash 5 Day [ 145.5 kB ]

Vegetarian Menus

  • 6-8, Lunch Sample Menu &mdash 5 Day [ 215.2 kB ]
  • 9-12, Lunch Sample Menu &mdash 5 Day [ 215 kB ]

Menu Planning and Meal Service

  • Chef Paula
  • Child Nutrition (CN) Label/Product Formulation Statements
  • Meal Patterns
  • Menu Planning Templates
  • Menu Samples
  • Production Records and Meal Service Documentation
  • Recipes and Culinary Techniques
  • Regulatory Guidance
  • Special Diets
  • Tips for a Successful Farm to School Program
  • USDA Menu Certification of Compliance

Document reader download links:

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Child Nutrition Programs

Learn about programs that offer food and nutrition assistance for children, including the School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program.

Learn about Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) reimbursement for healthy meals and snacks in child care centers, family child care homes, after school programs, emergency shelters, and adult day care programs. Also see:

Child nutrition programs help to ensure that children have access to nutrition meals and snacks in schools, summer programs, childcare centers and homes, and afterschool programs.

The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) Office of Food Safety develops education, instruction and technical assistance resources for individuals working in federally funded nutrition assistance programs such as the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), School Breakfast Program (SBP), Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), and Summer Food Service Program (SFSP).

Learn about the program that provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to eligible children each school day. See also:

Learn about the School Breakfast Program (SBP) and find related information and resources. See also:

The Sad State Of School Lunch In The U.S. (PHOTOS)

If you'd like to lose your appetite, take a look at this gallery of cafeteria lunches submitted by random high school students from across the country.

The photos come to us from the youth nonprofit, who have asked teens to share photos of their school lunches throughout the month of September. The full gallery is on the Do Something site, and users can vote to "toss" or "eat" each photo.

As demonstrated by the cringe-worthy images above, it's an effective campaign idea -- and the nonprofit plans to use the data gathered to create a "heat map" of school lunches in the U.S. Their goal is to raise awareness of the sad state of nutrition in public schools.

Here are a few more facts about high school lunches:

• According to the USDA a typical school lunch far exceeds the recommended 500 milligrams of sodium some districts, in fact, serve lunches with more than 1,000 milligrams.

• The USDA also reports that less than 1/3 of schools stay below the recommended standard for fat content in their meals.

• Last year 21 million students relied on free and reduced lunch as their primary meal of the day. Up to 65 percent of their daily calorie intake comes from school provided meals.

• Unbalanced nutrition leads to decreased performance in school, obesity, diabetes, and a whole slew of other health problems.

Tell us: Were you surprised by the lunch photos? Do you think your school cafeteria has enough healthy food options? Sound off in the comments or tweet @HuffPostTeen!

11 Foods We Miss Most From Elementary School Lunch

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Since the late 1990s, so much has changed concerning nutrition and what is truly “healthy.” Yes, obesity is a major epidemic, and now we see nutrition facts and calories counts all over restaurant menus. Today, you can walk into a fast food restaurant and count on your meal being 100% natural with all the cows and chickens raised humanely.

We live in a new era of nutrition — an era with changes that have specifically targeted the elementary school lunch menu. To me, this transformation is bittersweet. I’m sure the days where we left the lunch line with watery green beans, mystery meats, or syrup-infused fruit cups had us begging for something better. But it is undeniable that there were moments of culinary greatness that shaped our childhood lunch periods, and those moments will be forever missed.

Tater Tots

Photo by Isabelle Langheim

“Give me some of your tots” was one of Napoleon Dynamite’s most relatable phrases. These deep-friend, bite-sized, crispy, golden nuggets of potato goodness are the side dish we couldn’t wait to indulge plain or smother in ketchup.

Even the soggy ones produced a satisfying feeling like no other and, if paired with a chicken patty, gave you fuel for optimal freeze tag performance at recess. If tots still have a warm, crispy place in your heart, see how you can transform them in unbelievable ways.

French Toast Sticks

Photo courtesy of Jimmy Lorenz on Flickr

What was better than lunch dipped in syrup? Knowing you were going to indulge in breakfast twice a day was such an immense treat, and something for which we must thank the French. Undeniably, this was one of the meals where you wish it was self-serve. Just the thought of it created a sugar rush, causing you to run out of class in anticipation that the lunch lady would serve you one extra by accident.

Italian Dunkers

Photo courtesy of

Italian Dunker Day. This was the day we all excitedly circled on our paper fridge menus and the meal that kept us all giddy on our way to the bus stop. No human could resist these garlicky breadsticks smothered in melted mozzarella cheese and paired with sweet marinara sauce. So what if our parents thought they had zero nutritional value? The cheese, sauce, and bread combination covered all of the basic food groups in our eyes.

Chicken Patties

Photo courtesy of @nadiahjaapar on Instagram

Essentially, chicken patties tasted like giant chicken nuggets. Not only a safe lunch time choice, but a veteran since its first appearance in lunch rooms during the 80s. Clearly, these patties are one of the most innovative forms of a protein between buns we’ve experienced in our lifetimes. As kids, we respected the chicken patty because it never disappointed, and having it served with fries was always a plus.

Smiley Fries

Photo courtesy of

Another example of potatoes being used to their optimal potential. These ones also had a psychological effect. As you ate them, you felt your stomach smile, which would directly result in a smile across your bright-eyed, chubby-cheeked face.

Smiley fries were undoubtedly magical they possessed the power to make you happy, no matter how you played the recorder or performed on your times tables. Looking to recreate your childhood? See how you can make your own smiley fries.

Rectangle Cheese Pizza

Photo courtesy of

Not just pizza, rectangle pizza. This was pizza in its most original form and commonly served on Fridays, making it the best day even more. Tough luck if you were late to the pizza line — you were then doomed to wait for what felt like days before indulging with your pals. No wonder pizza day sparked the concept of the back-cut. But the wait was so worth it, and it had us singing “Cheese please!” as we were finally served this baked quadrilateral full of flavor.


Photo courtesy of @amberlajara on Instagram

Taco day was always a fiesta. Who even cared what was in the taco meat? You could cover it in cheese, salsa, and even the sophisticated sour cream. If you wanted some more texture than what the hard corn shell provided, you could even add shredded lettuce and chopped tomatoes. Commonly paired with corn niblets and “Spanish rice,” this entrée had you leaving the cafeteria completely immersed in a new culture.

Ice Cream Cups

Photo courtesy of

These were the finest desserts that the cafeteria provided (unless orange creamsicle Push-up pops were present). With wooden spoon in hand, you controlled the rate at which you ate and decided if it was a particularly vanilla or chocolate day for you.


Photo courtesy of

Welcome to the state fair! Who didn’t love hot dogs coated in cornbread and propped on a stick? Honestly, the only way to improve upon the hot dog was by frying them in batter, and this was never taken for granted as a child. It was also the most convenient lunch to eat while alternating bites of your baked beans and mandarin oranges. If you still can’t get enough of corndogs to this day, check out this recipe that takes them to a new level.

Mac and Cheese

Do not even pretend you didn’t crave the creamy, fluorescent orange and completely artificial cheese of this entree. It flawlessly covered the usually mushy noodles on your plastic tray, but the combination was one of ideal texture and taste. Sure, it was no culinary masterpiece, but it was a weekly staple that left us full and with enough energy to get through the dreaded arithmetic and grammar.

Meatball Sub

Photo courtesy of

One usually associates spaghetti when meatballs come to mind. However, as kids, there was no better sight than three delicious meatballs smothered in marinara with melted cheese oozing out of a toasted roll. Mamma mia, we no speak Americano anymore.