Report at a Glance
School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children
Two national programs—the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program (SBP)—play key roles in supporting the nutrition and health of schoolchildren in the United States by providing nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches each school day. In 2008, the NSLP provided lunch to more than 30.5 million children, and the SBP provided breakfast to 10.5 million children.
Currently, to receive federal reimbursement, school meals must meet regulations that were established in 1995 for Nutrition Standards and Meal Requirements. The complex set of regulations specifies amounts of nutrients that must be provided, meal planning approaches, and rules for the food that must be on the student’s tray. Advances have been made in dietary guidance in the years since those regulations were established. To obtain assistance in updating the regulations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) asked the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to provide recommendations to revise the standards and requirements for both the NSLP and the SBP.
To meet its task, an IOM committee reviewed and assessed the food and nutritional needs of school-aged children in the United States using the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans set by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and USDA, as well as the IOM’s Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI). Furthermore, the committee reviewed the current regulations for the NSLP and SBP Nutrition Standards and Meal Requirements. The committee recommends numerous revisions and that emphasis be placed on revised Meal Requirements rather than on nutrients per se. The committee’s recommended new approach clearly focuses on providing meals that are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
RECOMMENDED MEAL REQUIREMENTS
The committee makes recommendations for Meal Requirements, which encompass two types of standards: 1) standards for menu planning and 2) standards for meals as selected by the student (in contrast to those that are simply offered to students). Standards are needed for meals as selected because, by law, all high schools are required to allow students to decline a specified number of food items (to reduce waste), and other schools may choose to do so (a majority of them do so).
In order to align school meals with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and improve the healthfulness of school meals, the committee recommends that the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA adopt standards for menu planning that:
- increase the amount and variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains;
- set a minimum and maximum level of calories; and
- increase the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat and sodium provided.