Brain Food: New National School Lunch Program Standards

on Jul 24, 2012 in Blog by

For students returning to school this fall lunch in the cafeteria will look different. That’s because the upcoming school year marks the beginning of the new Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program. The regulations, unveiled in January of this year by First Lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, are a component of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act and include offering students whole grains, larger portions of vegetables and fruits, and less overall sodium and saturated fats. To get an idea of what a typical lunch offering might be, take a look at this sample menu.

During the unveiling Secretary Vilsack summed up the potential of these new standards, “When it comes to our children, we must do everything possible to provide them the nutrition they need to be healthy, active and ready to face the future – today we take an important step towards that goal.”[1]

We often discuss educating the whole child when we talk about our schools. And much of the current debate around testing and curriculum focuses on what we are choosing to prioritize: Do we focus on reading, writing, and math above all else? Can we afford to not put as much focus on science in the curriculum? Where does learning languages and cultural awareness stand? What about the emotional and social aspects of preparing our students for the next phase of their lives? Increasingly, we have heard more in the debate about the central role of helping students understand nutrition and health. As we face what many experts call epidemics of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other health issues in our children and young adults, the need to educate them about healthy eating and nutrition seems a very high priority. And what better way to teach than by example – serving them the foods that promote a healthy lifestyle.

School lunches have played a big role in most of our lives, and they certainly loomed large in my childhood. My mother was a cook at my school, and the rules of the cafeteria – what could be served together, which food groups must be represented and in what proportion – were the rules she followed at home too. In fact, my friends would often comment after coming over for dinner at my house that they felt like they had just eaten in the “lunchroom.” During the late 80s and early 90s that meant a lot of potatoes, pastas, a good size serving of meat, and A LOT of green beans cooked in margarine. Luckily, it also meant we got dessert at almost every meal! My mother cooked for us like she was taught at the school to cook. As her understanding of nutrition has changed, she has changed the way she cooks. A dinner at her house now is full of whole grains, steamed vegetables, and lean cuts of meat or beans. You find very little margarine or butter and (I must admit, this part makes me sad) dessert is often fresh fruit. Like many of us, the way she understands and relates to food has changed a great deal as we have learned more about nutrition. It only makes sense that we apply what we have learned to the foods we serve in our schools.

It is estimated that these new standards may cost $3.2 billion over the next five years. For some schools this may mean a slight increase in school lunch prices.[2] However, the new regulations require that reduced lunch prices must not rise to offset the costs. It is always difficult to ask our over-burdened schools to take on more costs, but as a mother with children who see school lunch as a real treat, it is worth it. We all know the long-term benefits of healthier eating: fighting disease and obesity. We also know the short-term benefits: whole grains release more slowly in the system and help regulate glycemic index levels, and a greater focus on fruits and vegetables instead of processed foods and starches provide key vitamins throughout the day while promoting sustained energy levels.

I agree with Secretary Vilsack that these new standards are a step in the right direction towards providing our children a healthy diet at school and teaching students good nutrition for a healthier future.


[1] United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service.  (2012, January).  USDA unveils historic improvements to meals served in America’s schools.  (Press release.)  Retrieved from

[2] Ibid.


  • Jeffrey says:

    honestly I hate the new policy as a high school student.. the fat free milk tastes awful and forcing us to take food that we didnt want to begin with will lead to alot of food waste! people already complain about the taste of school lunches and it just got worse with this “step in the right direction” that does not even resemble what a “free” country should be doing in my opinion..if you want to serve it at school…fine..but forcing it on the tray pisses me off.

    • Ann says:

      Jeffrey, though I know it’s not possible for everyone to pack their lunch, you still have that option. Maybe you should exercise that right if that’s an option for you. This “step in the right direction” is this country’s way of trying to combat the growing obesity problem that not only affects children, but adults as well. I was a teacher for 5 years and my students complained about the lack of healthier options. They were tired of the deep fried french fries, tots and the pizza. Most children are not meeting the minimum requirements of their daily needs for their macronutrients and their vitamins and minerals. This is one way to at least make it possible that they are meeting some of their needs at school. There was a ton of food waste before this step. I watched many students throw entire trays of food away that they never touched. At least this is one good thing that has been implemented by the government in my opinion.

Leave a Comment