School lunches have been the focus of much controversy in the past few years, but school cafeteria food has been the brunt of jokes for decades, as anyone who has ever attended public school can attest. However, school lunches are no laughing matter. Today, we’re more aware than ever of the importance of nourishing young minds with a healthy, well-balanced diet to equip students for success. But do we really know everything we need to know? Here are five things you don’t know about school lunches—but probably should.
1. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 has good intentions but is not well-executed—yet.
Most everyone is aware that there is some set of standards that aim to standardize the nutritional quality of school lunches across the nation. Most notably, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, enabling the U.S. Department of Agriculture to overhaul school meals in order to meet currently accepted standards.
In spite of its noble intentions, the act has been harshly criticized by claims that the food is unpalatable, participation in the school lunch program has dropped sharply as a result, and in turn, school districts are realizing less revenue. Worse, more students are skipping lunch altogether.
On the surface, the Hunger-Free Kids Act makes a lot of sense. It requires school meals to be lower in fat, lower in calories and lower in sodium, as well as contain more lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. The hallmarks of a well-balanced diet, right? Unfortunately, in order to continue to meet student expectations, school lunch programs are often serving reengineered versions of the foods students were accustomed to (think: whole-grain doughnuts, cheesesteak sandwich served on whole-grain bread with cheese low in both fat and salt, and some form of lean meat that some say is unidentifiable to many students). It’s fair to say that these reinvented foods aren’t meeting the bar in students’ eyes.
2. Standards require that certain foods be on a student’s trays when exiting the lunch line, but there’s no guarantee the kid will actually eat it.
It also turns out there’s a lot of waste. The act requires that students participating in school lunch programs have certain items on their trays before exiting the lunch line—meaning many fruits and vegetables are dumped into the trash, untouched.
Other critics express concern that by banning certain foods and attempting to essentially force students to consume foods they don’t enjoy, the program may be fostering an unhealthy relationship with food among today’s youth. Proponents of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, however, say that students are starting to come around to some of the healthier options and say that the act simply needs more time to allow schools and students to adjust.
3. Your school district may be outsourcing its school lunch program.
Huge food service companies are making bank by securing contracts with public school systems to provide school lunch foods. Privatization of school lunches has been around since the 1980s and 1990s, primarily due to dwindling federal support and funding. Sadly, nutritional standards often take a backseat to the need to control costs.
One public school district in Washington, D.C., gave the concept of privatization a shot beginning in the 2008-2009 school year based on the promise of numerous benefits: better-tasting meals with better nutritional quality, which in turn would result in better student participation in the school lunch program—an attractive benefit for schools.
More importantly, outsourcing the school lunch program was supposed to result in cost savings. Per Washington, D.C., law, any outsourced government service must result in a cost savings of 5 percent or more. An audit conducted in 2016 found that the district consistently failed to realize the projected cost savings:
- In the 2009 fiscal year, projected savings were 56 percent and actual savings were -4 percent.
- In the 2010 fiscal year, projected savings were 68 percent; actual savings, 53 percent.
- In the 2011 fiscal year, projected savings were 73 percent; actual savings, 5 percent.
These savings shortfalls were expected to be made up with the promise of drastically increased student participation (from approximately 51 percent to 71.6 percent in the first year). Higher participation rates typically result in increased revenue through reimbursements per each meal served. However, these projections also failed to play out as expected.
Nutritional standards for healthier school meals may be partially to blame for a lack of participation, but other factors played a role as well. For instance, the report points out that participation rates are typically higher among students who receive free lunches. It’s worth mentioning that the audit did not specifically aim to assess the nutritional value or quality of the foods provided.
Finally, the audit report identifies six other school districts that have privatized food services and subsequently returned to self-operation, including:
- School District of Philadelphia
- New York City Public Schools
- Detroit Public Schools
- Fairfax County Public Schools
- New Haven Public Schools
- Baltimore City Public Schools
For one reason or another, each of these school districts ultimately returned to self-operation after failed attempts at outsourcing food services.
Costs are obviously a pressing factor for school systems today, as many districts are operating on tight budgets, and some are even tapping into reserve funds to get through another fiscal year. But perhaps the more pressing question is whether privatization of school lunch programs results in healthier foods.
4. Major food companies make big money by marketing less-than-healthy food choices to schools.
In 2009, privatization was viewed as a possible savior for the sad state of school lunches, promising ready-made, healthy, and tasty meals that meet USDA standards, but these programs largely targeted charter and private schools at the time, as the cost of the meals exceeded the federal reimbursement, and public school districts simply lacked the funding to make up the difference.
For every company offering healthy meal options for schools, there are several making bank by marketing unhealthy options. And ultimately, if student participation isn’t there, the program—no matter how healthy it may be—won’t have the desired impact.
But how is this happening given the nutritional standards that went into effect? It’s the same phenomenon discussed earlier in this article: rather than scrap the idea of serving kids corn dogs for lunch, food companies simply re-invented their products to meet nutritional standards. So, kids are still getting corn dogs for lunch, but maybe they’re lower-sodium corn dogs.
Schools can either purchase foods directly from the USDA at discounted rates (which the USDA obtains from private companies) or they can opt to purchase foods directly from private companies, provided the meals meet the standards, containing the required minimum amount of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine reviewed a number of advertisements targeting the School Nutrition Association, a professional organization representing the 55,000+ school food service employees tasked with choosing and purchasing foods for school lunches. It found 106 ads for unhealthy meat and dairy products; among them, 26 full-page ads for Pizza Hut or Domino’s pepperoni pizza.
5. School districts may receive whole, nutritious food—and then process it into unhealthy options like chicken nuggets.
A 2011 article in the New York Times reports that the Department of Agriculture spends about $1 billion each year on foods such as fresh apples, sweet potatoes, chickens, and turkeys. Schools that participate in the program get cash subsidies or USDA foods for each meal they serve. According to the Times, some schools will cook these whole foods on-site, but an increasing number actually send the foods out for processing, turning once-healthy ingredients into unhealthy options such as fried chicken nuggets, pizza, French fries, and other common school lunch menu items.
The reason some schools send whole ingredients out for processing seems counter-intuitive, but it’s possible that it all comes down to the bottom line: it’s a lot easier to cook chicken nuggets for hundreds of students than it is to prepare chicken breasts, for instance, and it often requires simpler kitchen facilities and less-skilled staff to do so. So, while schools are paying more to have these items processed, they may be realizing greater cost savings by reducing their investment in labor costs (fewer hours, fewer skilled kitchen staff) and facilities.
One thing is clear: school lunches have a long way to go, and there’s no simple solution in sight. As school districts struggle to balance costs with meeting federal nutritional standards and other requirements, students are left to weather the storm with lackluster food choices that may not be having the positive effect on their mental and physical health that educators and parents want—and are certainly not having the tastebud-pleasing effects students hope for.