From the Source: School Meals and Student Health

Studies show that students who are well-nourished are more likely to thrive at school and live longer, healthier lives. 

Yet over the past 30 years, changes in the American diet have negatively impacted the health of our nation’s kids. As a result, today’s kids face a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, cancer, and osteoarthritis as adults.

The rise of diet-related diseases in kids has placed school nutrition programs in the spotlight. While school food is just one factor in the complex web of childhood health, providing kids with nutritious meals at school has a huge impact. For many students, school meals are their primary source of nourishment. They rely on programs that provide breakfast, lunch, snacks, and sometimes even supper to set them up for success in the classroom and beyond.  

These programs grew from the National School Lunch Program, a mainstay of American education for generations. This federal program combats hunger and malnutrition by offering subsidized school lunches to all children and providing meals free or at a reduced price to children from low-income families. Today it serves over 30 million students in more than 100,000 schools.

Healthy meals start with healthy ingredients, and school cafeterias can play a critical role in increasing access to nutritious meals. This is why FoodCorps has started to address school food procurement, a new area of our work that builds on our direct impact in the classroom. 

There are numerous examples of school districts creating policies and programs that support purchasing more whole foods and fewer highly processed products. School nutrition departments are hiring chefs, bringing back scratch cooking, and engaging students to try new cuisine. But this can be a daunting task. As school nutrition leaders look for creative ways to innovate for their staff and students, they must navigate a complex network of stakeholders and systems, including:

  • Sourcing. Accessing more healthful
 ingredients takes time and needs to be integrated across the school food system. Current suppliers may have limited product availability within the school marketplace, or they may be unaware of which products school district customers would prefer. 
  • Food preparation. Cooking from scratch empowers schools to control what goes into meals. For example, by serving fresh peaches, schools avoid using canned fruit packed in sugary syrup. However, many schools lack the facilities and trained staff to work with fresh ingredients. Many school nutrition departments are incorporating “speed scratch” menu days in an effort to make small changes over time.
  • Budgets. Schools rely on revenue from student payments as well as reimbursement from the federal government for each meal served. Incorporating scratch cooking techniques can increase overall costs, especially in the short term, as students become familiar with new menu items. When schools change what’s on the menu, they also need to consider how the changes will impact student participation.  

Students, parents, teachers, school districts, policymakers, advocates — we share a goal to improve access to fresh produce and minimally processed foods in school cafeterias. By working together, we can make small changes that lead to a big impact for our kids’ health. 

Want to learn more about how school meals reach students’ trays? Check out the other posts in this series, Who’s Who in School Food and School Food Procurement 101

This information comes from work conducted by School Food Focus, which has now merged with FoodCorps. We gratefully acknowledge the leadership and staff from School Food Focus who contributed to gathering the research and knowledge shared in this post.