For decades, television has filled our brains with images of hefty cafeteria ladies sloping mystery meat and unidentifiable vegetable mush onto kids’ trays. Is it really that bad?
The short answer is: no.
Federal lunch programs have moved beyond mystery meat and veggie slop. In early 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated their school meal standards.
Previously school lunch menus were planned based on nutrient requirements. For example, menus would try to give students a certain balance of vitamins and essential nutrients. Now schools follow less technical requirements.
For instance, instead of being required to provide 20mg of vitamin C, schools must now offer one cup of fruit. The new approach makes meal planning easier for schools while increasing the quality of school lunches.
The new standards increased the number of fruits and vegetables required. Schools must now provide 3/4 to one cup of vegetables per day and 1/2 cup to one cup of fruits per day. Schools are only allowed to serve 100 percent fruit juice, one percent milk, or fat free milk.
The standards require that at least half the grains consumed during lunch have to be whole grains. In 2014, all schools should be on track to being completely whole grain. Before the new 2012 standards, whole grains were completely optional, and schools were only required to serve one fruit or one vegetable.
Also schools must now also offer a meat alternative. As of 2012, schools can offer tofu as a meat alternative. Ask administrators at your school what other foods are available for kids on a vegan or vegetarian diet.
Now less than 10 percent of calories in school lunches are from saturated fat. Trans fat is not permitted at all. Schools are also required to begin decreasing the amount of sodium in student meals.
The actual menu will vary from state to state depending on what your school orders. Your child’s lunch menu may look something like this:
If you or your child aren’t comfortable with the food being served at your school, there is an “offer versus serve" (OVS) policy alternative. This means students can decline some of the food offered in a school meal. The OVS policy’s goal is to reduce the amount of food kids throw away every day. OVS is required for high school, so they have more flexibility each day during lunch. The policy is optional for elementary students.
Lunch requires five food components, and OVS allows students to decline two items. But regardless, they must accept at least a half cup of fruit or vegetables.
School lunches are much healthier now than during the mystery meat days. But despite federal regulations, the details of what your child is eating depends on what the school orders. If you have a problem with the details of your school’s lunch offerings, you can talk to your school administrators or representatives of your local government.
For more details about the National School Lunch Program, check out What the Government is Feeding Your Kids