Across America, School Lunches Now Come With a Serving of Politics

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Children eat at a federally-funded Head Start Program school, 09/20/12 in Woodbourne, NY. The school provides early education, nutrition & health services to children from low-income families. (John Moore/Getty)

In 1946, the National School Lunch Act created the modern school lunch program. By the end of the school year in 1947, around 7 million children had been served.  

The National School Lunch Program has steadily grown since—last year more than 5 billion school lunches were served to over 30 million students across the country, according to the USDA. In total, more than 224 billion lunches have been served since the program’s start.  

But with every lunch comes new criticism of the program.

In New York, one problem is just how early school lunches are served. Because of a shortage of space in cafeterias, tens of thousands of students eat their lunch before 11 A.M.—sometimes as early as 9 A.M.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, almost four dozen public school districts are coming under fire for completely denying lunch to students from low-income families who don’t come up with the 40-cent cost of a reduced-priced lunch. Similar practices have been reported in schools in Utah and Texas.

Then, there’s the long-standing issue of nutrition: After Congress passed the Health, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, school menus changed to include more vegetables, and sometime students started complaining that the new "healthy" meals were neither tasty nor filling. 

Americans have been talking about how to fix school lunches for a long time: Why is this so hard to fix? And what should the school lunch of the future look like?

Marion Nestle, professor of Nutrition and Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, has given this issue much thought. She also runs the blog Professor Nestle joins The Takeaway to discuss the main obstacles to better lunches and what the lunch program of the future should look like.

Check out our interactive infographic below that shows when school lunches are served in New York City.


Marion Nestle

Hosted by:

Todd Zwillich

Produced by:

Mythili Rao


T.J. Raphael

Comments [13]

Kitty from Georgia

My kids have graduated from the public school system in Georgia. One graduated in 2005 and one in 2011. I don't remember the older one having so much difficulty with the times she had to eat, but the younger one definitely had some 10:45 lunch times! In our schools, though, most of the teachers allowed the kids to bring a snack for the afternoon which was nice. BUT, in high school, some of those kids started their day with a 6 am class so eating at 10:45 or 11:00 wasn't bad. Then, they ended their day at 2 so not so bad. The problems I have seen with school lunches can't please everyone. Kids are allowed to eat unhealthy foods at home and so they expect to see junk on their trays at school. The amount of food thrown away is awful. I like Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. I was appalled to see that some of the kids interviewed by him in his first season didn't even know what a tomato is. That's just ridiculous.

Feb. 16 2014 12:48 PM

Ooops! Forgot! Drink more water!!!!

Feb. 14 2014 01:31 PM

Let's Move, and Eat Healthy are good solid plans M. Obama put together and promotes. She and her kids look pretty healthy... Usually, 1[one] gram of protein is sufficient for the day. 2 oz of protein is .56 grams; that is about 1/2 the amt. needed to be healthy. When whole grains and complex carbs. are included that is a perfect lunch.

Just because kids don't think it's enough to eat shouldn't be a school's guideline. Most Americans over eat; portion size is out of balance for most of us. Eating a large meal at lunch would be best, but schools can't and shouldn't be the only provider of food for a child.

My child didn't feel like eating breakfast, nor did I. Tha's a potential problem, but we learned to cope with it, and often had a snack before bed which suited for having either a very early school lunch or a late one. Yes! Late lunch was a difficult wait, but we survived, and were/are very healthy individuals.

If you put good nutrition in, no matter the schedule, you don't need big servings. American's have gotten used to eating pizza, and it's OK to have as long as other meals have more complex foods, and lots of fiber.

Feb. 14 2014 01:24 PM

Professor Nestle embarrassed herself and her institution in this interview. The Takeaway was that if we are in trouble with school lunches, its because people like Nestle have a hand in it.... and that tarnishes the good with the bad.

Feb. 13 2014 02:15 PM
Christine from Boston, MA

I attended parochial school in the early 1970's. There was no provision for buying lunch so all students "brown-bagged" it. I remember very clearly the nuns on lunch duty walking up and down between the lunch tables making sure everyone's lunch was eaten. Occasionally someone would try to sneak their uneaten lunch into the trash. If caught, (and usually the student was caught), the tossed-out lunch was retrieved by the nun and the student would be made to finish anything that was left! My husband attended a different parochial school and the same thing happened there. Of course I always made sure I finished my lunch!!!

Feb. 12 2014 06:48 PM
Tania Gonzalez from Queens, NY

My daughter is in 5th grade in a NYC public school. Her lunch hour is at 10 am. She is given a small snack (usually cookies and milk)during her after school program which runs from 3:30 - 5:30. By the time my kid gets home from school she is starving and complaining of headaches. I used to pack food for her to eat during the long stretch between lunch and snack time but her teacher has decided to take away eating time in class due to lack of class time, a decision which I have been fighting against for a while now.

Feb. 12 2014 04:12 PM
Ana Bettencourt from California

One solution would be to have a food prep class that all children cycle through on a daily basis, learning to prepare healthy lunches for their school for that day or the following day. What happened to teaching children to cook? Could this not be part of the curriculum and food lunch program as well? If a school can't afford a nutritionist, is there not a group of mom/grandmas/ interested parents that could fill in voluntarily or for a small stipend? Or are the major lunch supply corporations holding our children for ransom? Let's be honest!!!

Feb. 12 2014 04:07 PM
RT from Santa Clara

I have a sibling who worked long and hard as an advocate for breakfast and lunch services for low income kids and then served on their high-ESL, K-8 school district board for eight years with the same issue a top priority.

A comment I vividly recall from that quarter was of a vision: "Alice Waters, peddling across the San Francisco - Oakland Bay Bridge [impossible] carrying One Perfect Spear of asparagus to deliver to the cafeteria at Lowell High School, where the students first marvel at its sublime aspect and then throw it in the compost bin.

Feb. 12 2014 03:16 PM
Karen Flanagan from Austin, TX

Our high school has 3 lunch options: only 12:16, only 1:54, or both 12:16 and 1:54, which is a 90-minute difference every other day. Most students are on campus at 6:30am (cross country runners, track runners, swimmers, band, etc), so waiting until 2pm for lunch is not only cruel, but unhealthy for a developing body. As a dietitian, I have realized the importance of eating at regular times and lunch for most individuals usually falls between 11:30 am and 12:30 pm, with little variance of the start time. We are teaching our kids to "wait it out". Our school principal, school board, and superintendent won't touch the issue, so I get a medical prescription for my sons to have lunch at 12:16 daily.

Feb. 12 2014 01:40 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Any lunch program that comes before 11 is outrageous: it needs to be called Brunch.

Feb. 12 2014 01:08 PM
Angel from Miami FL

Kids can sell their fingerprints to Big Lunch. That should keep them fed.

Feb. 12 2014 12:44 PM
Angel from Miami FL

Kids can sell their fingerprints to Big Lunch. That should keep them fed.

Feb. 12 2014 12:40 PM
Ed from NJ

In NJ the state has adopted the federal government standards for school lunch that was part of Michelle Obama's healthy kids campaign . Part of that program was the exclusive use of whole grains, more use of vegetables including beans and brown rice. There is less use of meats such as processed cold cuts and beef, increased use of turkey, chicken and vegetarian dishes. Many of the complaints the schools that are on the National School Lunch Program have are about the size of the portions served (sandwiches with 2oz of protein). Many schools have committees where the kids give feed back to the foods service directors about lunch and breakfast. No soda or candy is sold in schools that follow the program and they are audited by the State for compliance. Not all schools are following these standards that decision is made by the school.

Feb. 12 2014 10:44 AM

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