Karen Cicero

There has been a push in recent years to improve the quality of school lunches and make them healthier. The National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which provides free or low-cost lunches to millions of children in the United States, has implemented new nutrition standards aimed at increasing the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products and reducing the amounts of salt, sugar, and saturated fat in school meals.

However, the progress in improving the nutritional quality of school lunches has been slow and uneven. A number of studies have shown that the nutritional quality of school lunches still falls short of the recommended standards, with many meals still containing high levels of sodium, sugar, and unhealthy fats.

In addition, there are challenges in implementing healthier school lunch programs, including limited funding, resistance from students, and a lack of culinary expertise among food service staff. The COVID-19 pandemic has also disrupted school lunch programs, with many schools shifting to grab-and-go or packaged meals that may not meet the same nutritional standards as hot, freshly prepared meals.

Despite these challenges, there are efforts underway to improve the quality of school lunches and make them healthier. Many schools are partnering with local farmers, implementing farm-to-school programs, and offering cooking classes and taste tests to encourage students to try new and healthy foods. With continued efforts, it's hoped that school lunches will become healthier and more nutritious in the future.

Warning: School lunch is my hot-button issue. Politics or sports don't nearly drive me as crazy as hearing my 9-year-old daughter, Katie, announce what her school cafeteria served. Yesterday, for instance, she told me about a pretzel-wrapped hot dog, corn, "peaches in slimy sauce," and cake. Grrr.

A couple of months ago, my hopes were raised when I heard that the USDA was toughening up the rules for school lunch. In September, every public school that has some students from low-income families on the free lunch program is required to follow these new guidelines -- that's most public and charter schools in the country, including Katie's. The USDA hailed these changes as "historic improvements." I, however, was not terribly impressed. While I was happy to see that the rules stipulate more whole grains at lunchtime and better milk choices, canned fruit with syrup -- which seems to be the fruit du jour at Katie's school -- and super-high levels of sodium are still permitted. Elementary school lunches currently contain 1,377 milligrams of sodium -- almost as much as kids should have for the entire day. The USDA's goal is to lower that to 1,230 mg and then drop it to 935 mg. Katie will be in college before it becomes a more reasonable 635 mg.

I asked Elisa Zied -- registered dietitian, author of Nutrition at Your Fingertips and mom of two boys -- if she was happy about new lunch menus. Her response: "They're not perfect, but they're a step in the right direction." And, of course, she's right about that. Babies born this year will undoubtedly have healthier school lunches when they're in the fourth grade than my daughter does now.

But where does that leave me? Packing a lunch every day is a pain, but I've learned over the years to plan dinnertime leftovers, like pasta salad or roasted chicken, that could easily work for the lunchbox the next day. It's tempting to toss in packaged crackers or pretzels. But more often than not, I stick with no-fuss fruit, like bananas and easy-to-peel clementines. What do you pack for your hungry students?






Health - Are School Lunches Getting Healthier?