Seven Questions About the New Meal Standards

In school cafeterias across the country, students are seeing big changes on their lunch trays. The USDA recently approved new rules for the federal school lunch program, the first such changes to student lunches in more than a decade. Jessica Donze Black, Director of the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project, explains the benefits of the new guidelines.

Q: As the new nutrition guidelines for school meals go into effect, lunches now feature healthier foods and portion sizes.  What are the new calorie limits for meals being served in schools?

Donze Black: The new nutrition guidelines make sure that meals and portions are healthy and “right sized” for kids based on their age. School lunches have always been intended to provide about a third of the recommended daily calories for the average student. Under the new standards, lunches in elementary schools range between 550 and 650 calories, middle school lunches between 600 and 700 , and those in high schools have roughly 750 to 850.  These numbers allow schools to serve a large variety of filling foods. 

Q: Are these enough calories for highly-active students such as athletes?

Donze Black: Yes, for most kids this is more than enough. Of course, a relatively small number of extraordinarily active students, such as competitive athletes, may need more calories to prepare for significant after-school athletic activities than one lunch provided to all students can offer. Schools and families can help this small group of students prepare for athletic activities with a la carte foods, after-school snack and supper programs, or even snacks from home. 

Schools also can provide an afterschool snack through the National School Lunch Program, or a snack and an evening meal through the At-Risk Afterschool Meals component of the Child and Adult Care Food Program.   

The bottom line is that, with one in three children in our country overweight or obese, we can’t keep feeding all kids like they’re athletes in vigorous training. We need to provide healthy foods and beverages and appropriate portion sizes and calorie limits to promote good health and help kids maintain a healthy weight. 

Q: What about low-income students? Are they getting enough food to make up for the fact that many do not get enough nutritious meals at home?

Donze Black: The school lunch has always been intended to meet one-third of children’s daily energy and nutrient needs. Meals high in fat and calories aren’t good for anyone. Many students from low-income families are hungry — not because of lack of calories, but because they aren’t getting all of the nutrients they need. The updated school meal standards are addressing this gap. Kids this year are getting more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and low-fat dairy, and fewer fats. Healthier school meals mean healthier students. 

Schools have other ways to provide for students, as well. Many lower-income elementary schools provide nutritious snacks during the school day through the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. What school breakfast and lunch are intended to do is make sure students get adequate calories and all of the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients they need to be healthy. 

Q: What other changes are parents and students seeing, and why are they important?

Donze Black:  School cafeterias are being transformed. Students are being offered larger portions of fruits and vegetables in many more varieties than previous years. Foods are made up of whole or at least partially whole grains.  

The U.S. Department of Agriculture last updated the school meal nutrition standards in 1995, so the standards were nearly two decades old. In the years since, nutrition science has really evolved. At the same time, we’ve also seen a dramatic rise in childhood obesity.  The new standards are intended to apply what we know about nutrition and children’s diets so that we serve kids what they genuinely need to help them be healthy. 

Q: Is this the first time the federal government has issued nutrition standards for school meals?

Donze Black:  No. School meal standards have been around for decades. The school lunch program started during the 1940s, and the USDA has always been responsible for setting nutrition standards for those meals. The standards began as a way to ensure students were getting enough food during the school day. More recently, and especially since the dramatic rise in childhood obesity rates, the standards have focused on making sure kids get enough of the right kinds of foods so they can lead healthy lives.  

Q: What role does the federal government play in ensuring that kids have healthy meals in schools? Is there a role for local governments and school districts?

Donze Black: School foods are a partnership between local leaders and the federal government. 

Many of the specific decisions about what’s served in schools are made on the local level, including what’s on the menu, what recipes are used, how often specific foods are served, and how the foods are presented.  Local decision makers also decide how much time kids have to eat and when the meal periods occur during the school day.   

The federal government provides funding for the school breakfast and lunch programs. For schools to receive that funding, they need to serve meals that meet basic nutrition standards. But there is a lot of flexibility in those guidelines, so states and school districts have a tremendous amount of leeway in what they serve to students.  

Q: What can schools and parents do to ensure that kids will actually eat the new school meals?

Donze Black: Many schools implemented healthier meal standards long before they were required by USDA. Those schools found that more students would eat school lunch, and enjoy it more, if they had a role in planning the meals. Surveying kids to find out what foods were interesting to them, conducting taste tests to help select the new foods, and offering students samples to try before they have to buy a new food are all great strategies for increasing student acceptance. If students feel like they are involved in the process, they’re more likely to eat and enjoy the foods that are provided.   

Schools are required to provide lunches that include a vegetable, a fruit, a low-fat or non-fat dairy option, a protein, and a grain, and many schools provide multiple options within those categories. Students are not required to take everything that is offered to them – they only have to select three of those things for them to count as a meal. There are lots of opportunities for students to decide what healthy food they actually want to eat. Therefore, they’re more likely to eat what’s on their plate and not throw it away. 

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