Serving Healthy School Meals
Schools play a critical role in influencing the health of our nation’s children. More than 31 million children in the United States participate in the National School Lunch Program, or NSLP, each school day,1 and a large number of students consume up to half of their daily calories at school.2 Yet, many schools were built decades ago and face challenges as they strive to serve foods that meet children’s dietary needs. This report focuses on one crucial set of challenges that school districts face in meeting nutrition standards for meals: the need for improved equipment and infrastructure.
In January 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed updated nutrition standards for school meals to align them with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans3 and current information on children’s nutritional requirements.4 Schools were required to implement the updated standards for lunches in school year, or SY, 2012–13 that incorporate more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products.
School food authorities,* or SFAs, are managing to serve healthier meals despite challenges, such as limitations in their existing kitchen equipment and infrastructure and in the knowledge and skills of food service staff.5 As of September 2013, USDA data confirm that 80 percent of schools reported meeting the standards.6 These changes are a huge step forward for child nutrition and, therefore, children’s health.
Since the beginning of the National School Lunch Program, the federal government has provided funding for school kitchen equipment. However, until 2009, nearly 30 years had passed without funding for this priority. In 2009 and 2010, primarily with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the USDA provided $125 million to SFAs to purchase, renovate, or replace food service equipment. The agency received more than $630 million in grant requests from SFAs in response to ARRA funding, suggesting a substantial unmet need.
The information presented in this report is based on a self-administered, online survey of school food service directors or their designees (primarily food service managers) from a nationally representative sample of the administrators of public school food authorities.
* A school food authority is the local administrative unit that operates the national school breakfast and lunch programs for one or more school districts.
This report presents findings about the challenges districts face in implementing the updated meal standards, specifically as they relate to equipment and infrastructure needs. Below are the key findings:
- Finding 1: The vast majority of school food authorities (88 percent) needed one or more pieces of equipment to help them meet the current lunch standards. Of those that reported having inadequate equipment, more than 85 percent are “making do” with a less-efficient process or workaround.
- Finding 2: Only 42 percent of school food authorities reported having a budget to purchase capital equipment, and less than half expected the budget to be adequate to meet their equipment needs.
- Finding 3: More than half of all school food authorities (55 percent) need kitchen infrastructure changes at one or more schools to meet the lunch requirements. Schools across the country are working hard to put safe and healthful meals on the cafeteria table. This report will outline the equipment and infrastructure they need to do so.
In light of the report findings and a series of specific suggestions discussed in the Kitchen Infrastructure, Training, and Equipment in Schools Workshop, the project recommendations are as follows:
- Recommendation 1: School officials and local policymakers should work collaboratively with parents, teachers, students, and funders to identify and implement strategies for meeting equipment, infrastructure, and training needs.
- Recommendation 2: Federal, state, and local governments should prioritize making funds available to help schools upgrade their kitchen equipment and infrastructure to efficiently serve healthy and appealing meals.
- Recommendation 3: Nonprofit and for-profit organizations that have an interest in improving children’s health, education, school infrastructure, and community wellness should assist schools in acquiring the necessary equipment.