Brown Bag vs. Cafeteria Tray: School Meals May Surprise

By Dani Sheffield on 08/08/2016

Tags: Obesity, Nutrition, Research, Breakfast

Being a child nutrition services executive director, making sure that my more than 70,000 students eat healthy every day is near and dear to my heart. Many parents and health professionals underestimate the amount of work it takes to ensure that our students are being properly fed day in and day out. Regulations, budgets and even the school day schedule all affect how our students eat.

Plus, more and more students are eating more of their meals at school. For some, school meals may be the only meals some students regularly eat. Currently, 32 million students in the United States participate in the school lunch program and more than 12 million participate in the school breakfast program.

As nutrition professionals, we know that good nutrition is important for students. We also know that there is a lot of misinformation out there about the state of school lunch. You may be surprised to learn how much quality, appeal, variety and benefits that school meals provide to children.

School Lunches Meet High Standards

Many of the misconceptions about school meals come from a misunderstanding of what students are placing on their trays. School meals feature whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy. While school meals have always had nutrition standards, in recent years, there has been a focus on lowering sodium and saturated fat. School meals also focus on meeting children’s calorie needs based on their age. While some portions may be smaller, kids still get the nutrition they need to keep them growing and in good health.

Parents may think they are packing the right foods, but school lunch standards are developed from evidence-based guidelines. Studies show that school meals are healthier compared to those prepared at home:

  • A 2014 study found that packed lunches from home were often foods that were energy-dense but nutrient-poor. Only 25 percent of those lunches met the same nutrient-rich standards as the National School Lunch Program.
  •  A 2016 study looked at diet quality between those who packed lunch and those who ate school lunch. The study found that students who chose school lunch had better diets compared to those who brought their lunch from home.

Breakfast Shows Benefits, Too

Besides offering wholesome lunches that keep students fed and focused, many schools offer school breakfast as well. Some parents and health professionals have been concerned about whether these programs offer too much nourishment for students. Researchers have found that students who eat breakfast at home and at school are less likely to be overweight than those who don’t eat breakfast at all. Plus, eating breakfast plays a large part in the learning connection, the relationship between good nutrition, physical activity and academic achievement. And, of course, there is the component of student education to instill healthy, lifelong eating habits.

Sources to Share

There are many great stories to share about school meals, from fighting food insecurity to decreasing food waste and supporting local agriculture and farmers. A few great sites for you to explore include School Meals that Rock, National Farm to School Network and the U.S. Food Waste Challenge.

Learn more about schools and find ways to get involved with schools in your community.