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School Lunch Programs

School lunch programs are an important part of our public school system. Children and teenagers often rely on school lunch as part of a nutritional, healthy diet. Read this article to learn more about the school lunch program and why it is so important.

School lunch programs have a long history of providing nutrition for school-aged children, but today there is a growing concern about the cost of school lunch programs and the quality of the food they provide.

School lunch programs began in the 1800s when some people realized that, while all children were supposed to have the opportunity to attend school, many either didn't attend or weren't able to learn because they were suffering from hunger. At first students’ meals were provided by charitable groups, but as teachers reported that students who had adequate nutrition showed improvements in academics and behavior more local governments became involved in providing meals for school children. The Great Depression increased concern over hunger among children, and during World War II doctors established a clear link between the health of soldiers and their nutrition in childhood. In 1946 Congress passed an act granting federal money, to be matched with money from the states, to provide school lunches so that all children in America would have access to healthy meals.

Since 1946, several generations of children have benefited from the national school lunch program. Some of the advantages of the school lunch program are:

  • The school lunch program provides free meals to many children for whom getting adequate nutrition is a challenge because of low income. For some students, the school lunch is the only real meal they get each day.
  • School lunches are also available as a convenience for students whose parents can afford the meal but might not have the time or knowledge to prepare a healthy meal for their children.
  • School children who get adequate nutrition through school lunches do better in school and have fewer behavioral problems.
  • Schools generally have some flexibility in deciding what they will serve, so they can meet the tastes of their students by providing ethnic meals, and they can choose to provide food that is produced locally.

Though the national school lunch program is intended to provide healthy food for all school age children, it does have shortcomings. These include:

  • School lunch programs place the burden of providing for children on the schools instead of on their parents, which strains school resources and costs school districts, and taxpayers, more money.
  • Many school lunch programs offer food that is too high in fat, sodium, and sugar and may be contributing to the problem with childhood obesity in America. Only some schools can afford to offer healthy options, and even then many children still pick less healthy alternatives if they are available.
  • School lunch programs are not required to offer alternatives for children with allergies to foods, such as tree nuts, peanuts, milk, and eggs, which can be life threatening. They also don't have to respect children's religious food restrictions, such as providing kosher or vegetarian choices.
  • Schools where nutritional concerns are the greatest - poor urban and rural schools - often are the schools with the fewest resources and options for providing children with healthy meals.

Many school districts are trying to address some of these concerns by looking for low-cost ways to provide a variety of healthy choices to children and educating children about making healthy food choices. The ways schools address these problems varies depending on whether the schools prepare meals themselves or whether they rely on vendors to provide meals. Both systems have advantages and disadvantages.

When schools prepare meals themselves they have the option to make healthier meals by preparing food fresh from scratch. Some of these schools also are able to use food from local farmers, which is fresher, supports the local economy, and may be organic. Schools that prepare their own meals, however, do not necessarily use the best quality ingredients. Though preparing food in the school may save money on the cost of the food, it can cost the school more for labor because more employees are required to prepare the food. Sometimes this expense can be offset by income the school generates by catering school events.

Many schools do not have the kitchen facilities necessary to prepare meals themselves. In these cases, schools must rely on vendors to supply meals to schools.

Vendors provide meals to schools that are ready to be heated and served. This requires less space, since schools only need a warming oven or microwave to prepare food to be served. The quality of food offered by vendors can vary greatly. Some schools, especially middle and high schools, have fast food vendors, providing students with unhealthy meals. Healthier vendors may provide a variety of good food choices, including ethnic foods, organic foods, or foods that were locally grown and produced. Vendors generally cost schools more per meal, and healthier options are often more expensive than unhealthy ones.

The importance of good nutrition to children's well being and success has been well established. The challenge of providing students with nutritious lunches often falls on schools, who may not have the resources to meet the demands placed on them. Today many schools are seeking better ways to meet this challenge, and the best solution probably varies from school to school. Parents who are concerned can talk to school administrators and get involved in the local parent-teacher association to learn about local challenges and help find solutions. Parents should also set a good example of healthy eating at home and teach children how to choose nutritious meals.


Chef Ann Cooper: Renegade Lunch Lady, "The Real Cost of School Lunch" [online]
USA Today, "Vendors Pitch New Foods to Schools” [online]
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, "Healthy School Lunches” [online]
Food Research and Action Center, "Federal Food Programs: National School Lunch Program” [online]
School Nutrition Association, "School Nutrition Association Releases 'State of School Nutrition 2009' Survey" [online]
Gordan W. Gunderson, "The National School Lunch Program Background and Development” [online]
Pennsylvania Department of Education, "Food and Nutrition Programs: National School Lunch Programs" [online]