Getting to Know the School Lunch Nutrition Standards

In light of overwhelming instances of childhood obesity, school cafeterias are now required to offer more fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. Along with these changes, sodium levels are to be reduced over a ten year period and fat-free milk will become the norm. All in all, empty calories are very much reduced with these new rules. 

What about Charters and Magnets?

All public schools, including charters and magnets, that participate in federal school meal programs must comply with nutritional standards set by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). In turn, the schools receive cash subsidies (reimbursements) and often receive food commodities as well. Accurate records are kept of each meal served so nutrition compliance can be assured.

Charter schools are allowed to contract with outside food caterers rather than prepare food on the school grounds. They may also choose to share food services with a local traditional public school. However, each charter school is still responsible for meeting federally mandated standards. These involve food handling and storage, sanitation and safety, and meeting required meal components and serving sizes. And of course, provide all the record keeping as well.

National School Lunch Program

The National School Lunch Program is a very old successful school lunch program that’s been ongoing since 1946. Schools are not required by law to participate in it, unless they have kids who need financial help. As of 2013, 36% of charter schools take advantage of this reduced-cost or free lunch program, compared to 23% of traditional public schools. The meals are designed to provide ⅓ of the “recommended dietary allowance of necessary nutrients”. 

So what exactly does that look like in an average child’s cafeteria breakfast or lunch?

The Typical Breakfast

Not all kids eat breakfast at school but for those that do, here’s what you can expect for the first meal of the day.

Whole Grain Egg, Cheese & Sausage Boat (200 calories)
Assorted Fruits/Fruit Juice (55-90 calories)
Fat Free or 1% White Milk (80-120 calories)


Whole Grain Pancakes (210 calories)
Assorted Fruits/Fruit Juice (55-90 calories)
Fat Free or 1% White Milk (80-120 calories)

The Typical Lunch

Schools serve 5 billion lunches each year. Here’s what you are likely to see on your child’s lunch tray since the new nutrition standards were set. This grade K-8 lunch is listed with its calorie content:

Taco w/ Corn, Edamame & Whole Grain Baked Scoops (346 calories)
Blueberries w/Low-fat Vanilla Yogurt & Whole Grain Granola (440 calories)
Assorted Fresh Vegetables (20-25 calories)
Assorted Fresh Fruit (60-90 calories)
Fat Free or 1% White Milk (80-120 calories)


Cheese or Pepperoni Whole Grain (WG) Pizza (310-330 calories)
Spicy Chicken Patty Sandwich on Whole Grain Bun (341calories)
Baby Carrots (30 calories)
Roasted Chickpeas (160 calories)
Assorted Fresh Fruit (60-90 calories)
Fat Free or 1% White Milk (80-120 calories)

Calorie Requirements

Many schools list the calorie content of each meal component to show that they are within the new calorie guidelines, which are as follows:

Grades K-5, 350-500 calories
Grades 6-8, 400-550 calories
Grades 9-12, 450-600 calories

Grades K-5, 550-650 calories
Grades 6-8, 600-700 calories
Grades 9-12, 750-850 calories

Lunch and breakfast meals no longer have trans-fat additives at all and no more than 10% of the fat content can come from saturated fats. The total fat content of any one food item cannot be above 35%. There is also a limit on sugar content to 35% of an item’s weight. And it is now the law that free drinking water be available in each cafeteria or food service area. Who would have thought you needed a federal law to ensure that? 

Competitive Foods Requirements

Vending machine foods, snack bars, and a la carte offerings have long competed with healthier cafeteria foods and the new nutrition guidelines have finally put some controls on that. It’s now the law that these “competition foods” follow that same nutritional guidelines as the cafeteria foods do.

Snack foods now must be whole grain, have as the first ingredient a fruit, a vegetable, a dairy product, or a protein food; or be a combination food that contains at least ¼ cup of fruit and/or vegetable, or contain 10% of the Daily Value (DV) of one of the nutrients of public health concern in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (calcium, potassium, vitamin D, or dietary fiber).  Additionally, there will be no more soda vending machines, either all-fruit or all-vegetable juices along with the fat-free milk are the new choices.

*These new rules do not apply to food and beverages brought from home or sold during non-school hours, weekends or at off-campus events.

Recent Compromises

The above-mentioned guidelines have been in effect for a couple of years now and some standards have proved very difficult to reach. The School Nutrition Association of cafeteria and meal program operators has complained that many cafeterias are losing money and having trouble keeping “paying customers”.  Adjustments have been made to the standards so that new, relaxed guidelines state that 20% of grains can fall short of the whole-grain standard. Schools can now occasionally serve some old favorites such as biscuits or white tortillas. Also, schools will have two additional years to comply with salt intake reduction.

Do you feel that school lunch standards meet your child’s nutritional needs?

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