The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is another USDA, federally assistance food program, striving to provide nutritious meals to children during the school day. As of 2012, like the School Breakfast Program, the NSLP operates in over 100,000 public, private and non-profit schools nationwide, which feed over 31 million children a day. To say that the NSLP is needed in schools would be an understatement. Thankfully, since the introduction of NSLP, Congress has expanded the program to include the reimbursement of snacks for children during extracurricular activities and/or enrichment programs.
Schools that opt to participate in the program are provided cash subsidies and USDA foods for each meal served. To continue to qualify for the program, schools must comply with federal meal nutrition requirements and must offer free or reduced lunches to students. While the specific foods and how they are prepared can be decided by the facility itself, the nutrition requirements include:
- Offer fruits and vegetables as two separate meal components;
- Offer fruit daily at breakfast and lunch;
- Offer vegetables daily at lunch, including specific vegetable subgroups weekly (dark green, orange, legumes, and other as defined in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines) and a limited quantity of starchy vegetables throughout the week;
- Offer whole grains: half of the grains would be whole grain-rich upon implementation of the rule and all grains would be whole-grain rich two years post implementation;
- Offer fluid milk that is fat-free (unflavored and flavored) and low-fat (unflavored only);
- Offer meals that meet specific calorie ranges for each age/grade group;
- Reduce the sodium content of meals gradually over a 10-year period through two intermediate sodium targets at two and four years post implementation;
- Prepare meals using food products or ingredients that contain zero grams of trans fat per serving;
- Require students to select a fruit or a vegetable as part of the reimbursable meal
Children from families’ with incomes that meet or are below the 130% poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those from families that are between 130-185% of poverty level are eligible for a reduced price lunch, and are not allowed to be charged more than 40 cents. Children from families over the 185% poverty line will pay full price.
After reading these guidelines, it may sound like the USDA is setting schools up for success, but since schools have the autonomy to choose how foods are prepared and the numerous complaints about how “bad” the food is, I’m sad to see that the NSLP meals aren’t where they could be. Additionally, there is a discrepancy since all schools have to do is “offer” these healthier foods. Observations have found that many of the fruits are thrown in the trash after lunch! For anyone has ever gotten school lunch, how are the meals? What’s your take on the school’s ability to meet the above nutrition guidelines? How can the NSLP be improved?
Photo Credit: RubyUHart