America’s School Lunches Still Aren’t Making the Grade

Last Update: April 24, 2023

“What did you drink at lunch?” I asked my then-six-year-old son. “Did you get chocolate milk?”

“No, dad,” he answered, clearly pleased with himself. “But did you know that they have strawberry milk? That’s healthier!”

Whether it’s sugar-sweetened milk and juice, greasy French fries, or good ’ole pizza Fridays, lunchtime at school can be a minefield of difficult choices for kids, and a disconcerting situation for parents who try to feed their kids healthy meals.

Faced with shrinking budgets and picky eaters, school districts too often choose to serve the cheaper, heavily processed foods they know kids will eat. Eighty percent of schools have exclusive contracts with Coca-Cola, for instance, and, somehow, pizza is considered a serving of vegetables on the lunch tray.

Politically, any changes to the lunch menu have been quietly (and not so quietly) fought by food industry forces. Since the passage of the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 which updated nutrition regulations for meals served to children at schools, Republicans in Congress have fought to roll back aspects of the law that they deem harmful to food makers.

For instance, provisions were added to the law temporarily suspending the reduction of sodium in school lunches until research could prove that reducing salt intake benefits kids, and cafeteria workers can now serve fewer whole grains than what the law originally required.

But despite the pushback and threats by some in Congress to relax the regulations permanently when the law is reauthorized this fall, a new poll shows that parents like the changes and want them to stay. In fact, nearly nine out of 10 Americans say school nutrition standards should remain the same or be strengthened, undercutting opponents’ claims that the 2010 law has been unpopular with both students and parents.

Many low-income families depend on the low-cost or free lunches provided at school to nourish their children. Some children, in fact, consume up to 60 percent of their daily calories at school. Improving the nutritional content of the meals served at schools for these students is a social justice issue, many believe.

But healthy lunch options can even be difficult to procure day in and day out for families who pack a lunch for the kids. Store shelves are stocked with heavily processed, sugar-laden convenience “foods” that are all too easy to fall back on for busy moms and dads. Thankfully, there are now more nutritious choices than ever for school lunches—though you may have to hunt for them at the supermarket. At Thrive Market, on the other hand, it’s easy to shop for nutritious school food and snacks, since everything here is vetted to make sure it meets the highest nutrition and sustainability standards.

Let’s continue to push food companies to clean up their act with the foods they’re marketing to our kids, and push our schools—and our government—to do the same. Kids already have enough on their plate in the classroom. No need to let the food they eat make learning even more difficult.

Photo credit: Casey Bisson via Flickr

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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