The National School Lunch Program is a federal program that assists (public and nonprofit private) schools in providing free or low-cost meals to students. In 2018, the program provided lunch to 29.8 million students each day, and many schools also offer a breakfast program. Research has shown that the availability of school meals has a measurable positive impact on student performance.
To ensure that students are getting nutritious meals, the program includes detailed regulations on what types and quantities of foods should be part of the meals offered. These regulations are frequently updated based on new nutritional information or political influences, so we’d like to take a look at where federal regulations stand currently as we start the new decade in 2020.
Overview of School Nutrition Requirements
The details of the federal school nutrition policies are quite complex, but the basic requirements are as follows:
- Meals must meet minimum and maximum calorie requirements which are adjusted based on student age.
- Schools need to reduce the sodium content of meals over time to meet future requirements.
- Meals must include options for fruits/vegetables, grains, and milk (amounts vary by age).
- The regulations divide vegetables into several categories, and differentiate between recognizable and non-recognizable vegetables (like cooked carrots blended into a pasta sauce).
- Schools can choose an Offer Versus Serve system to give students more choice, but students must still take a certain number of items and their selection must include a serving of fruits or vegetables.
Updates and clarifications made to the requirements in 2019 included:
Salad Bars: The Food and Nutrition Service laid out ways that school food operators can best ensure that salad bars are serving their intended function of getting students to eat more fruits and vegetables. The FNS recommends that schools apply age-appropriate minimum quantities for different salad bar items, and that they consider pre-packaging salad bar selections whenever possible to facilitate portioning and reduce the potential for foodborne illness. They also recommend using signage and having staff on hand to assist students to make sure they are taking the appropriate quantities from a salad bar.
Whole Grains: Some specifics on meal requirements have been updated, including the requirement that 50 percent of grains offered weekly be whole-grain-rich, while 50 percent must be enriched.
Starchy Vegetables at Breakfast: Another change specifies that starchy vegetables (like potatoes) can be offered at breakfast without being offset by non-starchy vegetables.
Vegetable Pasta: Pasta made with vegetable flour can be credited toward legumes rather than grains.
Smoothies: Commercially-prepared smoothies can now be counted under several different categories. Previously, smoothies had to be made in-house.
Looking to the Future
While it’s impossible to predict exactly how political and financial realities will shape the future of the National School Lunch Program and other food assistance programs, there are trends that indicate what future changes might look like.
As new food products, especially meat alternatives, are developed, the nutritional regulations will have to continue to adapt to include them. Local food sourcing is likely to continue to grow as an area of focus, as is addressing food waste. And the higher cost of more nutritious meals will continue to be a challenge for foodservice programs. In addition, school chefs and cafeteria directors will continue to find creative ways to encourage students to eat more healthy options, including incorporating international flavors, student taste-testing, and making dishes visually appealing.
No matter how school nutrition regulations change, the right equipment can help foodservice programs meet the challenge of efficiently preparing healthy meals for growing minds and bodies. Blodgett offers cooking equipment designed to answer these challenges head on in 2020 and beyond.