School Lunch Showdown

School lunch menus have been the subject of controversy for decades, as we’ve noted before here at Diabetes Flashpoints. The most recent law passed by Congress that deals with school lunches is the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Under this law, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is empowered to set nutritional standards for all food sold in schools during regular hours, including breakfast, lunch, à la carte items, and snacks. For example, USDA requires that all foods sold be either “a fruit, a vegetable, a dairy product, a protein food, a ‘whole-grain rich’ grain product, or a combination food that contains at least 1/4 cup of fruit or vegetable.” USDA also imposes a variety of nutrient requirements, including limits on fat, sodium, sugar, and total calories in foods based on whether they’re a snack or entrée item. As USDA explains in its materials, it developed these rules with the goal of improving students’ nutrition and reducing the rate of obesity and related diseases like Type 2 diabetes.


Now, that law is back in the spotlight as the Republican-controlled US House of Representatives prepares to pass a USDA funding bill that would let school districts opt out of its nutrition requirements for one year. First Lady Michelle Obama, a leading proponent of the original law, has come out forcefully against making the standards optional, writing an op-ed in The New York Times in which she makes the case that the standards are working. But as noted in an ABC News article published on Sunday, many school cafeteria workers and the food industry disagree. According to the School Nutrition Association, an industry-backed group that originally supported the 2010 law, many school districts are losing money because not enough kids are buying the healthier lunches. According to the group, more than a million fewer students are now buying school lunches each day compared with 2012, when the new standards began to go into effect. Before 2012, participation in the school lunch program was rising.

Many critics of the effort to suspend nutrition requirements claim that the move is backed mainly by food companies worried about profits. Furthermore, as the First Lady notes, 90% of school districts have successfully implemented USDA’s standards, providing tens of millions of children with better nutrition. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack opposes suspending the nutrition standards, as does President Obama, who has threatened to veto any funding bill that scales them back. The version of the USDA spending bill currently before the Democratic-controlled US Senate leaves all school nutrition standards in place.

What do you think — should school districts be allowed to relax their nutrition standards if sales of lunches or snack items are slipping? Are all standards pointless, since kids can bring anything they want to eat from home? Does a student’s right to nutritious meals outweigh concerns about fewer students buying them? Do you think school nutrition standards will have any effect on the rate of youth obesity or Type 2 diabetes? Leave a comment below!

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  • AngelaD

    I don’t believe that school lunch sales are falling because the new USDA standards limit lunch choices to healthy options. I believe it is because the USDA standards have caused the costs of making the lunches go up and so the school lunches are now more expensive. It is now more cost effective for my child to take a brown bag lunch. many people would like to eat more healthfully but are not able to due to the high costs of healthy foods. Junk food and empty calories are much cheaper than organic whole foods. Sad but true 🙁

  • BK

    I also don’t think that is why sales are falling, but I am not sure it is really more expensive to make healthful foods, even to go in the brown bag. I always said I would take school lunch over what came in “most” of those brown bags any day. It may be more expensive to buy “organic” whole foods, but whole healthy foods in season can be quite economical. I am not convinced that my food needs to be so called organic and am not convinced that foods labeled organic really are organic either for that matter.

    I don’t think the standards should be lowered. Our kids and their future health are worth weathering this storm.

  • Diane

    What makes you think they are lowering the nutritional standards? Government should stay out of our family business. Most of those lunches get thrown away, how does that benefit anyone? The older generations grew up with brown bag lunches. The problem today is all the additives and growth hormones. Spend our money on fixing those problems and leave the raising of our children to us.

  • Lynn angell

    It upsets me calories went down and volume went down. We love in a poor district and if breakfast and lunch are the only meals a child is getting why can we not put more food on their tray. My cafeteria workers know who is hungry. We throw good away at the end of every day. Seconds should be allowed

  • Nancy

    I am a teacher, and my school is about 95% low income, and yet many students chose NOT to eat breakfast, or lunch. The meals are not tasty, and many of the favorite things kids liked to eat are not served. I no longer eat school lunches, if I didn’t have time to pack a lunch I would buy one ($3.50) but they have become so unappetizing that I no longer do so. Last time I bought one I was served french toast sticks and beans. Ugh. Or they have nachos, but served with meat. No cheese. Or wraps, in flour tortillas that aren’t heated up. Most breakfast is cereal (rice krispies, raisin bran, cheerios) and milk, with fruit. Many of the little kids can’t eat an apple because they don’t have front teeth. Much food is thrown out. Our cooks know how to cook, before everyone ate lunch for the most part, but under the new guide lines it isn’t tasty. Sure school districts are loosing money.