America's school lunch program is in crisis — but there's a small silver lining

For the first time, the national school lunch program will update their nutritional standards to cap added sugars

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published April 25, 2024 1:55PM (EDT)

School lunch at a public elementary school in New Jersey: hamburger; milk, apple sauce and smiley faced french fries. (James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images)
School lunch at a public elementary school in New Jersey: hamburger; milk, apple sauce and smiley faced french fries. (James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images)

America’s school lunch program is in crisis. 

As of last year, the national public school meal debt was approximately $262 million, with 30.4 million students unable to afford their school meals. Those meals aren’t always the most nutritious; while cafeterias slopping out “mystery meat” and cardboard pizza slices are a now teen TV cliché, it’s not far off from the truth. According to the Public Education Review, reheated chicken nuggets, French fries, shriveled hamburgers, iceberg lettuce salads and a bevy of processed foods make up a significant portion of the school lunch program’s offerings. 

Just last week, a consumer watchdog group issued a report urging schools to remove Lunchables and similar food kits from their lunch menus. According to Consumer Reports, the kits served in school have even higher levels of sodium than the kits available for purchase in stores nationwide, both of which also contained “relatively high levels” of lead and cadmium. 

Then, once students finally have snaked their way through the lunch line, received their trays, paid — or, in the case of many students with lunch debt, receive a stamp on the hand to indicate they couldn’t afford their meal — and find a table, they often only have 20 minutes to eat their meals. Experts say (and teachers observe) this isn’t enough time for students, especially younger children, to adequately chew fibrous fruits and vegetables without feeling rushed. 

However, there is a small silver lining — one that could eventually pave the way for sustained change. 

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the nation’s school meals will meet new nutrition standards that, for the first time, limit added sugars. According to a news release, The Department arrived at these changes after listening closely to public feedback and considering the latest science-based recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

“We all share the goal of helping children reach their full potential,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement. “Like teachers, classrooms, books, and computers, nutritious school meals are an essential part of the school environment, and when we raise the bar for school meals, it empowers our kids to achieve greater success inside and outside of the classroom. Expanding on this major milestone, the Biden-Harris Administration will continue to partner with schools, districts, states, and industry to build on the extraordinary progress made to strengthen school meals.”

According to the Associated Press, the limits on added sugars would be required in the 2025-2026 school year, starting with high-sugar foods such as cereal, yogurt and flavored milk. By the fall of 2027, added sugars in school meals would be limited to no more than 10% of the total calories per week for breakfasts and lunches, in addition to limits on sugar in specific products. 

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“The new standards build on the great progress that school meals have made already and address remaining challenges - including reducing sugar in school breakfasts,” said the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Cindy Long in a statement. 

The move to reduce both sugar and sodium across the national school lunch program — which comes after the Trump administration rolled back nutritional requirements from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that were set during the Obama administration — has been praised by several leaders of health-focused groups, including Nancy Brown, the chief executive of the American Heart Association.

“For the first time ever, the USDA will cap the amount of added sugars in school meals, a major stride in helping children achieve a more nutritious diet and better health,” Brown said in an emailed statement. “Added sugars are a significant source of excess calories, provide no nutritional value and may cause weight gain and increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other chronic health conditions. We are thrilled to see the USDA has followed the recommendations from a 2022 citizen petition from the American Heart Association and other public health groups to include an added sugars standard in this final rule.” 

However, Brown indicated that the program has a way to go in terms of nutrition. 

“Although we are disappointed that the whole grain standard does not fully align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and the sodium standard does not require more significant reductions, we understand recent legislation limited USDA’s ability to go further,” Brown wrote. “Overall, the updated standards are an important step forward and we applaud the agency for continuing to move in the right direction.” 

While the national school lunch program needs to adapt in several critical ways to fully serve the country’s student population, reducing the amount of sugar in meals is a small improvement that could set a precedent for more nutritional changes in the future. 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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