How Plant-Based Lunches Can Help the National School Lunch Program in 2023

For years, The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) has been rightfully scrutinized for its lack of quality control and the unhealthy school lunches they provide.

The purpose of the program is to assist public, non-profit private, and residential childcare institutions with providing nutritionally balanced, low-cost, or free lunches to children each school day. After its enactment in 1946, it was President Harry Truman who stated that the intention of the NSLP is to “safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other foods.”

The NSLP is beneficial for a variety of reasons:

  • Reduces food insecurity

Children are guaranteed 1 to 2 meals at school each day. With adequate calories per meal, children are more likely to be well-fed, especially if they come from low-income households.

  • Better Education

The term “brain food” is real when it comes to eating the right foods to pay better attention. School meals provide the basic nutritional needs for children to focus and succeed in school.

  • Motivates student well-being

Based on a study published by the Journal of School Health in 2008 it was found that effective school nutrition programs “have the potential to improve student’s diet quality, academic performance, and, over the long term, their health.” 

However, over the past 76 years, many school districts, administrators, teachers, parents, and students have voiced their concerns which shows the NSLP has not been upholding the values they claim. 

Today’s common school meals can be described as junk food and below standard: frozen pizza, tater tots, corn dogs, pre-fried chicken nuggets, jello, cake slices, sugary milk, canned or old vegetables, and other pre-packaged products. 

There may be one or 2 salad options or a very small selection of fresh fruit and vegetables but it does not come close to outweighing all the other unhealthy options that are served.

Not to mention how costly school lunches have become – have you ever heard of school lunch debt? As crazy as it may sound, children actually have debts to pay for school meals they receive for free if they couldn’t afford it that day. Children having debt for not being able to afford a substandard school lunch, up to $3.50 in some states, should be completely unacceptable.

Why is quality an issue for school lunches? What causes these problems with the NSLP? The answer lies mostly in funding. 

As of 2020, the NSLP spent about $14.1 billion on school lunches, approximately $1.30 per student. This tight budgeting directly brings into question what can/will be bought and how much it will all cost, influencing corner-cutting when it comes to food quality. That $1.30 per child has to cover food costs, labor, electricity, and cafeteria equipment. Presumably, if schools received more money, then schools could afford healthier options. 

There is also USDA’s involvement by spending millions on agricultural products to provide to schools with little to no cost. Over 64% of the NSLP’s budget goes towards meat, dairy, and egg products, more than likely from factory farms versus locally sourced. Aside from agricultural goods, businesses or vendors the USDA purchases from are not the healthiest. For example, the USDA spends tens of millions on subsidies for the Special Milk Program to provide and encourage milk consumption among children. According to them, chocolate, strawberry, or vanilla milk high in sugar is totally fine and paid for by the government. Other vendors that the USDA employs for certain foods, snacks, and other packaged goods do not hold children’s best interests in mind. They provide easy, cheap, and unhealthy products to schools without a second thought about who it is directly impacting.

This is especially true for low-income schools and school districts who either receive most, if not all, funding from the NSLP. The school then has very little purchasing power and can only afford to take what is provided.

salad bar with sliced red cabbage broccoli tomatoes and cheese in metal inserts with white plastic tongs

With over 95% of all schools and nearly 30 million children in America participating in the NSLP, poor quality meals become more than an issue of giving unfavorable meals to children, but contests other public health factors.

What effects do these meals have on the development of children over time? How does this contribute to the childhood obesity crisis? How does this food affect their mood, focus, or thinking? Is the NSLP properly fulfilling its goal?

Why food quality matters:

  • Paves the way to healthier eating habits

Eating habits are developed young in life. If children are taught to enjoy healthier food by being exposed to them at a younger age, it can influence healthier resting habits as adults. Children eat at schools at least 5 days a week so they will have plenty of opportunities to familiarize themselves with different foods. 

  • Results in better academic performance

It is known that being undernourished or hungry leads to a hard time focusing and retaining information. It can also decrease our motivation to work or complete tasks. Students who have well-balanced meals are more likely to stay focused and perform better academically. 

  • Improves classroom behavior and attitude toward learning

A 2008 Harvard study found that providing less processed foods or foods with less chemical additives resulted in less aggressive and irritated behaviors in students. The study also found that providing healthy foods resulted in a 6% increase of students choosing healthier options at school.

  • Reduces obesity and improves overall health

As of 2019, almost 20% of adolescents are obese in America which is estimated to rise to about 60% in most states by 2030. A JAMA Pediatrics study conducted in 2013 showed that students who were given precise, nutritional meals had lower rates of obesity than other schools.

According to the USDA, school meals are supposed to include a bread product containing at least 50% whole grain, foods with zero trans fat, fruits and vegetables must be served every day, green/leafy vegetables must be served once a week, meals must meet both minimum and maximum calorie requirements for certain age groups and both regular and flavored milk must be nonfat or 1 percent.

These guidelines were a part of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) which was launched to address school lunch quality and America’s increasing childhood obesity issue by revamping the prior federal guidelines. The intention was to improve school meal standards by introducing healthier meals, and healthier choices and providing more nutritious meals for students to further benefit their overall well-being in school.

The guideline changes affected all schools that receive funding from the USDA and funding is only approved if the guidelines are followed. Thus creating the incentive that as long as the very basic guidelines are met, meal funding would be received. There seems to be very little quality control over these meals since the enactment of HHFKA. Despite following guidelines, holes in its structure allow for cheap and unhealthy main courses to continue happening.

Pizza, for example, is high in salt, fat and hidden sugars yet are fine to serve simply because there is an apple accompanying it. Another example is fried chicken with canned veggies instead of fresh vegetables meets guideline requirements as “nutritionally acceptable” for children. Meals will vary in what is served but the standard remains that unhealthier options are preferred since they are more favorable, cheaper, and last longer than healthier options. This is especially true for low-income schools with larger free and reduced lunch programs.

Since the HHFKA, school meals have seen little change in quality and incentive. Most meals are not made by the schools and there is still an overwhelming lack of fresh fruits and vegetables. Due to criticisms such as too strict guidelines, food costs, and the calorie insufficiency of these meals, federal administrations have been scaling back the reformed school nutrition requirements which could lead to, and maintain, less nutritious foods in many schools.

One prominent change that is building traction in schools is providing or creating plant-based meals in schools. Improving school meals with plant-based options has the potential of providing much healthier options in school and setting a new standard for what foods are acceptable for children. Unprocessed, plant-based meals can be full of fiber, vitamins and enough calories to give students the proper brain food they need to perform better in school. Plant-based meals could also be a catalyst for addressing our nation’s increasing childhood obesity and illness rates. Children who follow a plant-based diet are less at risk for chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, certain cancers, etc.

With plant-based lunches, schools are hoping to make healthy eating more appealing, affordable, and accessible to all children. Also, with there being so much evidence that daily school meals alone make such an impact on a student’s well-being both in and out of the classroom, imagine the greater impact that healthier, plant-based options could bring – it isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem.

In 2012, the USDA approved plant-based proteins such as nut and seed butter, cooked beans and peas, soy protein, veggie burgers ,and even tofu to meet the USDA requirements for alternative protein products. Unlike milk or other foods, these alternatives are not subsidized and can be expensive for districts to pay for themselves. There is also the issue of plant-based diets and knowledge is still relatively unknown to many so the demand for plant-based alternatives is not high enough. However, there is a strong incentive that plant-based meals will do everything the NSLP is supposed to be doing simply with fresh ingredients and by relying on local farmers to do so. 

Currently, there are 5 school districts in America that have begun implementing plant-based meals into their school districts:

1. Los Angeles Unified School District, California

In 2017, LAUSD piloted offering vegan meals in 40 of the schools in their district. They now provide vegan options in 82 schools and counting. From impossible burgers to vegan three-bean chili, the district is dedicated to offering fresh and delicious meals and rotating out its options every 4 months.

2. Ithaca City School District, New York

Since 2010, ICSD’s Coalition for Healthy School Food has been evolving its tactics to incorporate healthier options in its schools. With the intention of introducing new foods and fun, healthy eating to students, the non-profit has blended education on healthy foods, different cultures, and taste-testing to show students eating better can be delicious and nutritious. They offer one plant-based entrée at least twice a week in all 13 of the district’s schools as well as a salad bar with plans to expand their options in the future!

3. Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202, Illinois

Previously, PCCSD offered vegetarian and plant-based options by request. Now, with the help of the food service provider Aramark, they are offering these options to all students from salad bars to vegan chicken nuggets and many more options to come!

4. Santa Barbara Unified School District, California

SBUSD serves about 2 million meals a day, about half of which are vegan! They strongly encourage plant-based eating and even serve at least one option each day throughout all their schools – sometimes the meatless options sell more than the others. Along with their community gardens and education on healthy eating, they are a leading example of what the future of plant-based schools can look like.

5. Portland Public Schools, Maine

PPS have served vegetarian options in their schools for years, but recently they wanted to revamp their proclaimed “boring” plant-based meals into flavorful, exciting ones. The then single, cold vegetarian option is now 4 hot vegan meals served in some elementary, middle, and high schools in the district.



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