Hungry for Change: School Lunch and the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act


Could school lunch become your child's healthiest meal? Despite a ticking clock for legislation and budgetary constraints, some advocates think major strides can be made through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Read about the proposed changes and what you can do to help.

school lunchroom; cafeteria; elementary school; school lunch reform; healthy, hunger-free kids act; child nutrition act

Update: President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 into law on Dec. 13, 2010. The bill reauthorized child nutrition programs for five years and included $4.5 billion in new funding for these programs over 10 years. Key components of the bill are that it increased the number of eligible children enrolled in school meal programs by approximately 115,000 students and allowed the USDA to set nutritional standards for all foods sold in schools (and requires school districts to be audited to improve compliance with these standards). For more information about the Act, visit

You've heard your child gripe about school lunch, and you probably griped about it yourself 30-some years ago. But big changes are underway. On August 5, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act; and as we go to press, a vote in the House of Representatives has not yet happened, but the House version is also expected to pass. It is not yet clear whether President Obama will be able to sign this into law before September 30, when the Child Nutrition Act is set to expire -- but many parents and foodies have their fingers crossed.

The legislation revamps our National School Lunch Program (NSLP) in ways most nutrition experts welcome, and many consider overdue, during a time of sky-high childhood obesity rates, rising health care costs, Mrs. Obama's "Let's Move" initiative, and the much-ballyhooed White House garden. Advocates claim that American kids could eat better for just one extra tax dollar a day. Will Congress ultimately pass this reform, and if so, will kids accept lunches that have more fruits and vegetables, less salt, and skim milk?

The NSLP currently provides hot meals to 30.5 million children a day. That's well over five billion lunches a year, at an average price of $2.68 -- 30 cents below the cost of production. This government-subsidized program is a convenience for some, but a necessity for the one-quarter of American families considered "food insecure." School lunch provides one-third of children's daily calories and nutrition. For some kids, it's the most substantial meal of the day.


The Promise of Reform

School lunch reform is a long time coming. The school lunch program's regulations and its reimbursements for participating schools have remained largely the same since 1989. Currently, school lunches cannot exceed 30 percent of daily calories from fat, and 10 percent from saturated fat. In addition, each lunch must provide at least one-third of the RDAs for protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium, and total calories.

In 2004, the government asked schools to form local wellness committees to improve school food, increase nutrition education, and limit junk food sold in vending machines and during lunch periods. Many of these committees succeeded at adding fresh produce and deleting deep-fried foods from school menus. However, Team Nutrition, the federal money source for these changes, was underfunded. Thus, lower-resource schools saw few, if any, changes.

Over the past decade, scientific evidence has suggested that trans fats and excessive sodium can harm the heart, fiber can be heart-healthy, sweetened beverages can promote excessive weight gain, and Vitamin D can have body-wide effects. With the large numbers of overweight and obese kids who are at-risk for heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes, one year of postponing child nutrition upgrades has meant a major prevention opportunity lost.

The USDA asked the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to translate current science into legislative recommendations, many of which were written into pending Congressional bills.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act aims to reform by both increasing the number of kids who receive free or reduced-cost meals (with $1.2 billion going towards this access), and by improving overall food quality ($3.3 billion of funding backing this initiative).


Up for Reform
School lunch changes proposed by the Institute of Medicine (IOM):

Food Current Requirements Recommendations
Fruits and Vegetables Considered as one group; no specifications Two servings daily; a variety of types and colors 
Grains and breads  No whole grain requirement Half must be whole grain rich
Milk All types, including whole and 2% milk Skim (plain or flavored) and plain 1% milk only
Calories   Must meet minimum level  Minimum and maximum limits
Sodium  No specifications  Gradual decrease until 2020 


But What About Taste?

Can schools serve more fruits and vegetables, reduce fat and salt, limit calories, and still make lunches taste good? Three years ago, Byram Hills School District in Armonk formed a school food committee. The students, faculty, administrators, and parents (several of whom were Registered Dietitians) hired a vendor to provide fresh, healthy food and run a highly sustainable lunch operation. Even after cutting favorites like nuggets and fries from the menu, the district raised school lunch participation at all grade levels.

Many school food vendors are focusing on providing healthier food, not only due to anticipated regulatory changes, but because many schools, parents, and even kids, want it.

Rhys Powell, president of Red Rabbit, LLC, a growing school food provider in Manhattan, built his business on first-hand knowledge that "kids are more inclined to try fruits and vegetables if they are fresh, local, and delicious." The company formed a partnership with dietitians, physicians, and the NYC Greenmarket to bring the healthiest possible food to kids every day. Red Rabbit and its customers support local farmers, reduce their carbon footprint, and educate kids about its whole foods menu.

Advocating for Change

Help Your Kids... get the most nutrition out of their school eats:

  • Find out what's on the cafeteria menu. Discuss the options, and encourage your child to try fruits and veggies as well as the entrees.
  • Get active in your school's wellness committee or offer the principal constructive feedback about school lunch. If lunch is served too early or too late, or if the lunch period is too short, speak up.
  • Serve a variety of foods at home to get your child used to eating well.
  • Be patient. Kids are "wired" to prefer bland and sweet foods. It takes the average child 8-12 exposures to a new food before he will try it. To get your kids to expand their repertoire, grow a home garden, shop for groceries with your kids, and let them help prepare family meals.
  • Take responsibility. It's your job to teach your kids about making good food choices. Handing out money for vending machine snacks and packing junk food in lunchboxes can make your kids less willing to try new, healthy school lunch options.

In terms of legislation, American Dietetic Association (ADA) and other key advocacy groups support H.R. 1324, "The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act," which strengthens current nutrition standards. It also supports "The NEW Schools Act," which promotes wellness policies, better food quality, increased nutrition and physical education, limits on in-school food marketing to kids, and putting Registered Dietitians in charge of school food.

The ADA and its partners also supported the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act described above, recently passed by the Senate, which calls for $4.5 billion in additional child nutrition funding. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who pushed for its reauthorization and introduced a number of its provisions, said in prepared remarks: "The legislation rids schools of junk food, issues proper alerts to schools when contaminations occur, gurantees all foster children access to school meals, connects farms to schools to supply them with fresh, local produce, and strengthens nutrition resources for children and young mothers."

However, Gillibrand concluded: "But if our children are ever going to truly succeed in the classroom and beyond, they need better access to healthy meals in the lunchroom, and this legislation falls short of that goal."

In May, the White House launched a childhood obesity action plan, which recommends significantly raising school lunch funding. Brooklyn nutritionist Judith Belasco, MS, RD, recently attended a summit at the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Belasco, who serves as food programs director for Hazon, a Jewish environmental organization, highlighted participants' commitment to better school food. Participants firmly believe that "school food provides the essential nutrients that kids need to learn, play, thrive, and achieve their full potential."

Advocates believe that in order for school lunch to change over the long term, the nation must view cafeterias as classrooms, where kids learn the vital link between food and health, and build a lifelong positive relationship with food.

Concerned individuals can contact their Members of Congress to request support for legislation that improves school lunch. Check out for ideas on how to make your voice heard, take action locally, and directly petition lawmakers.