School Lunches


School lunches are a vital part of the day for children around the world because they typically consume up to half their daily food at school. For many children, school lunches constitute their main—or only—daily meal and are subsidized by governments. In the United States and other developed countries with epidemics of childhood obesity, improving the nutritional content of school lunches is an important goal.

Minimum nutrient and calorie levels for school lunches*

[traditional menu planning approach]

Nutrient and energy allowances


Grades K-3

Grades 4-12

Optional Grades 7-12






Total fat





Saturated fat





Protein (g)





Calcium (mg)





Iron (mg)





Vitamin A (RE)3





Vitamin C (mg)





*School week averages

1Total fat not to exceed 30 percent of calories

2Saturated fat to be less than 10 percent of calories

3Retinol equivalent (1 mcg of retinol or 6 mcg of beta carotene)

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food and Nutrition Service. US Department of Agriculture. Federal Register: Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, vol. 77, no. 17, part 2. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 2012. (accessed April 22, 2018).


Gone are the days when American children walked home from school at midday to soup and sandwiches prepared by stay-at-home moms. Although many students continue to bring lunch from home, school cafeterias serve lunch to millions of students every day. This not only makes for a more efficient school day, it helps ensure that children's ability to learn is not compromised by hunger. Many schools are attempting to integrate lunch into the overall curriculum, transforming school cafeterias into labs for teaching health and nutrition. School gardens that supply the cafeterias with fresh produce as well as cooking classes and field trips to local farms teach children where their food comes from and can be integrated into standards-based science curricula.


More than 99% of U.S. schools offer lunch, and providing those lunches is a multibillion-dollar business. School lunches were once famous for “mystery meat,” bland vegetables, syrupy fruit cocktail, and gelatin. That began to change in the 1980s, as school districts started outsourcing their food services to for-profit corporations and installing junk food vending machines to fund school sports, music, and art programs. To encourage children to eat lunch, menus featured kid-friendly favorites—pizza, fries, corndogs, chicken nuggets, brownies, and cupcakes—that were high in fat, sugar, salt, and food additives. Increased budgetary limitations forced school districts to cut kitchen staff and purchase the least expensive food available. Newer schools often had tiny kitchens designed only for reheating prepared meals. The stereotypical “lunch lady” was transformed from cook to reheater of factory or brand-name fast foods, such as Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, or Subway.

Faced with skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity, school lunches began to change again. Approximately 17% of American children and teens are obese, a three-fold increase since 1980. One-third are either overweight or obese, including almost 40% of African American and Hispanic children. School lunches share some of the blame, although across the United States they are slowly starting to improve, offering better tasting, more nutritious choices, including low-fat, low-salt foods, grilled chicken sandwiches, steamed or baked vegetables other than potatoes, and salad bars. Despite these improvements, many school lunches still have too much fat, sugar, and salt and not enough other nutrients, and in most school cafeterias, kids can choose unhealthy options. A 2017 study reported that Canadian school lunches were equally lacking in nutrition.

Cafeteria overcrowding is another problem. About one-quarter of all U.S. schools must begin serving lunch before 11:00 A.M. In some schools, students spend most of their lunch period waiting in cafeteria lines, with no time left to eat. A 2015 study found that students with less than 20 minutes for lunch ate significantly less of their meals, thereby increasing food waste, and were less likely to select fruit, compared with students who had at least 25 minutes for lunch.

Elementary school children in line at cafeteria being served healthy lunches.

Elementary school children in line at cafeteria being served healthy lunches.
(VW Pics/Getty Images)
National School Lunch Program (NSLP)

Although school lunch programs are administered by local school districts, the vast majority of U.S. public and nonprofit private schools—more than 100,000— participate in the NSLP. Established in 1946 and administered through the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the NSLP provides free or reduced-price lunches to more than 30 million children every school day. Children from families with incomes at or below 130% of the federally determined poverty level are eligible for free lunches. Those from families with incomes 130%– 185% of the poverty level are eligible for lunches that cost no more than 40 cents. Participating schools receive cash subsidies, USDA “entitlement” and agricultural surplus foods, and fresh produce purchased through the Department of Defense. In total, the USDA provides about 20% of school lunch ingredients with the other 80% purchased by districts, meaning that even full-price school lunches are federally subsidized to some extent. As of 2017, schools were reimbursed $3.07 for each provided free lunch; however, after labor and overhead, this left less than $1 per lunch for ingredients. Schools that are certified in compliance with the NSLP meal pattern received an extra 6 cents per meal. Schools in Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico receive higher reimbursements due to higher food costs. Schools are often allocated additional funding based on their percentages of free and reduced-price lunches, so it can be to a school's advantage to enroll as many students as possible in the NSLP. There can also be advantages for students, such as reduced fees for sports and testing. In schools with at least half of students receiving free or reduced-cost lunches, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program provides extra money for the distribution of fruits and vegetables throughout the school day. A 2015 study found that this program cut schoolwide obesity rates by 3%.

The lunch rules encountered resistance from students, parents, and food service directors, although food services learned to make the food more appealing to kids with bite-sized fruits and vegetables with dips; low-fat yogurt parfaits with fruit; mixed vegetables with rice, salads, and potatoes; and bean burgers and burritos with whole-wheat tortillas. Nevertheless, many students began skipping school lunch. Kids threw out their fruits and vegetables at a 56% higher rate than before the new rules. Nationwide, schools were wasting $1.2 billion worth of food every year. According to the School Nutrition Association, 70% of school meal programs began reporting substantial financial losses. The 2015 Agricultural Appropriations bill included waivers allowing schools to opt out of the healthier meals. In 2017, the Trump Administration further rolled back many of the school lunch rules. In their place, the Food and Nutrition Service established the Team Nutrition Schools program to encourage healthier meals that met the USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans standards.

Local initiatives

Many local school districts across the United States have developed their own programs for improving the nutritional content of lunches with varying degrees of success. Processed foods, pizza, chocolate milk, and soft drinks have been eliminated. Farmto-school or farm-to-cafeteria programs bring in local or regionally produced fresh fruits and vegetables and minimally processed main meals. Guest chefs prepare special gourmet lunches. School cooks are being retrained, not only in preparing healthier foods, but also in cooking from scratch.

California limited the junk food that could be sold in school vending machines. One study found that, as a result, California high-school students consumed fewer calories at school than teens in other states. At the request of Chinese-American families, Revolution Foods began supplying San Francisco schools with entrees similar to what many children eat at home. In 2017, the company began supplying breakfasts and lunches to most Boston schools, replacing frozen meals trucked in from New York with fresh, locally prepared, healthy, and affordable lunches.

Other local initiatives have been abject failures. Los Angeles tried replacing flavored milk, chicken nuggets, nachos, and other kid favorites with healthy but complicated gourmet-type cuisine. The kids found the meals too exotic or even inedible, since some of the entrees did not survive the demands of mass-producing 650,000 meals daily. School garbage cans filled up with nutritious lunches, and a black market in junk food and sodas thrived.

Some districts claim that healthy lunches are too expensive. In response to a student petition, two suburban Chicago high schools switched from a foodservice company that charged extra for carrot sticks and salad to one that served sustainable, organic, and local foods. Cafeteria food courts began offering seven to ten different lunches daily. Antibiotic-free, free-range chicken with saffron rice, grass-fed beef, and organic fruit salads replaced greasy burgers and pizzas. However, the more expensive items went to students who could afford them. “School lunch shaming” of students who lack lunch money has become a recognized problem. New Mexico became the first state to outlaw the practice by schools or cafeteria workers, and a national Anti-Lunch Shaming Act was introduced in the U.S. Congress. In 2017, New York City instituted a “Free Lunch for All” program for its 1.1 million students. Although 75% of students were already eligible for free lunch, the new program was designed to remove the lunchtime social stigma associated with poverty, as well as onerous paperwork required for free-lunch eligibility. Other school districts were expected to follow New York's example.

Kids' choice

Most kids still prefer burgers and pizzas, and many parents are less than thrilled with school lunch menus featuring tofu teriyaki. Many schools have found that smaller, covert changes can make for more nutritious lunches:

Bisphenol A (BPA)—
A chemical widely used in food packaging that can seep into foods and has been associated with various health conditions.
Proteins in wheat, barley, and rye that trigger intolerance or celiac disease in some people.
National School Lunch Program (NSLP)—
A program administered by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that provides for free or reduced-price school lunches for low-income children as well as providing surplus food to participating schools and offering support to school lunch programs.
Defined in children as a body mass index in the 95th percentile or above for age and gender.
Defined in children as a body mass index in the 85th percentile or above for age and gender.
Trans fat—
Fat that is produced by hydrogenation during food processing and that increases bad cholesterol and decreases good cholesterol.

Allowing children to make choices about what they eat can have profound effects. One study found that if children were given a choice between carrots and celery, 89% chose and ate the carrots, whereas only 69% of children ate carrots automatically served to them. Another study found that children automatically served fruits and vegetables ate only 1% more than children who had to request them. Given the choice between a regular cafeteria line and a healthy express line, children were much more likely to choose the healthy options over cookies and fries, as long as the health-food line included chocolate milk. Children were more likely to choose fruit from an attractive bowl than from a stainless-steel bin.


Improvements to school lunches are more likely to occur in wealthier districts and those with involved and nutritionally aware parents. Across the United States and the world, many schools struggle to provide their students with any lunch at all. Nevertheless, even some low-income districts are finding that healthy lunches cooked on-site can be cost-effective.

A 2015 study reported that prepackaged school lunches may have unsafe amounts of bisphenol A (BPA). This chemical, which is widely used in plastic food packaging and can linings, has been linked to a variety of health problems, including hormone disruption, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and cancer.


Accommodating children with food allergies or special dietary requirements is a major challenge for school lunch programs. Approximately 6 million American children—1 out of 13—have serious food allergies, and food allergies in children appear to be on the increase. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, public schools must make reasonable accommodations for gluten-free diets. However, children with diabetes and other medical conditions may have difficulty with school lunches. Furthermore, school lunches often do not include vegetarian options or accommodate vegan diets.

Parental concerns

See also Adolescent nutrition ; Childhood obesity ; Food additives ; Food allergies ; Obesity ; Sodium ; Sugar ; Whole grains .




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Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 120 S. Riverside Plz., Ste. 2190, Chicago, IL, 60606-6995, (312) 899-0040, (800) 877-1600, .

American Academy of Pediatrics, 345 Park Blvd., Itasca, IL, 60143, (800) 433-9016, Fax: (847) 434-8000, .

Food and Nutrition Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 3101 Park Center Dr., Alexandria, VA, 22302, (703) 305-2062, .

School Nutrition Association, 120 Waterfront St., Ste. 300, National Harbor, MD, 20745, (301) 686-3100, Fax: (301) 686-3115,, .

Margaret Alic, PhD

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.