The Truth About School Lunches

School lunch gets a bad rap despite some recent and promising changes in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).  A couple years ago I did some contract work analyzing school lunch menus and I was shocked at the amount of sodium in some of the meals.  Kids eating lunch brought from home are probably getting much healthier food, right?  Right??

In a study conducted in MN, researchers analyzed the nutrient profile of food consumed by 4th and 5th graders at 2 elementary schools during the lunch meal.  On the day of observation, 66% of the students took the school lunch tray and 34% brought their lunch from home.  The observers had received 10 hours of training on ‘direct meal observation…visual portion size estimation and data entry’.

The waste from the bagged lunches was weighed at the end of the lunch period to more accurately assess what had been consumed.  Here’s what they found:

  1. The food consumed by students from the school lunch was LOWER in calories, total fat, added sugars, and carbohydrates than the bagged lunches from home.
  2. The food consumed by students from the school lunch was HIGHER in protein, Omega 3 fatty acids, B vitamins, calcium, fat soluble vitamins than what students consumed from bagged lunches.
  3. Consumption of sodium from school lunch was higher!  BOO!  That hasn’t changed (Insert cranky dietitian here).
  4. While students consuming school lunch had a higher intake of vegetables, they consumed less fruits and whole grains than the students eating their bagged lunch.  [Since the study was done, there has been a big push for more whole grains in the National School Lunch Program and that has improved.]

So why did the bagged lunches fare so poorly in comparison to the school lunch?  Part of the problem may be the difficulty of finding ‘portable healthy foods’ as the researchers pointed out.  The other aspect, the one I think is MOST critical, is that the food coming from home is now often just as processed (or even more so) as the food provided by the schools!

I can’t tell you the number of times I have gone into schools at lunch time and witnessed lunch boxes filled with a box of ‘fruit’ punch, 1-2 bags of a gummy product (e.g. ‘fruit’ snacks, ‘fruit’ roll-up), chips, and candies…all for the same kid!

So what’s the point here?  Am I saying everyone should now feel comfortable with school meals?  No, not at all!!  This was not a ‘perfect’ study.  I do think however that this study identifies a real need for nutrition education to parents and families.  No matter how much work we put in to the NSLP, families still need help outside the school setting to support a healthy diet and lifestyle.


By Louise Goldberg, RD, CSP, LD, CNSC

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