Changes to School Lunches With New Act and Nutritional Standards

Signed into law in December, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 offers a number of provisions addressing school nutrition and school lunch program operations. This will include an increase in reimbursement rates to what schools can charge to their food service programs (sometimes overhead charges include lights, janitorial services, etc. that are charged to other departments). In general, the provisions will provide money, support systems, greater accountability and transparency to strengthen the school lunch and breakfast program.

Along with the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently published a proposed rule to update nutrition standards for meals served through the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. Changes would include more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat and fat-free milk in students’ meals. Also, schools would limit saturated fat and trans fats, sodium and calories in the foods they serve. These changes would make school meals consistent with current Dietary Guidelines for Americans set out by the USDA. Public in-put for the proposed rule is sought through April 13, 2011. You can review changes and offer comments at

We also asked the USDA about some of the new provisions included in the act. Below are our questions and the USDA’s answers about changes we can see in our school lunch and breakfast programs.

I know that schools’ budgets for their lunch programs have not changed for a significant number of years. How much will be added to their budgets with the new act? 

Improving the health and nutrition of children by providing nutritious meals in school is a top priority for the Obama Administration. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 charts a sound course for the health and wellbeing of America’s children and ensures they will receive nutritious foods in school while continuing to learn healthy habits that will last a lifetime.     

USDA is preparing to issue a proposed rulemaking to update the requirements for school meals to align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will increase school meal reimbursements by six cents per meal for all school food authorities in compliance with new federal nutrition standards for school meals — the first real increase in over 30 years.  If all schools earn the added reimbursement, this will yield roughly $380 million per year. 

The Act also increases technical assistance resources enabling USDA to do more to help schools prepare and serve healthy meals that children will enjoy.

The Act also requires States to ensure non-Federal funds contribute appropriately to healthful meals, with revenue for “paid meals” covering their cost, as USDA does for free meals, as well as prices for a la carte foods to cover their cost. More appropriate revenue and competitive pricing — eliminating an unintended federal subsidy — will keep the money in the hands of local schools and ensure adequate resources to provide healthful foods.

While some schools do their lunch programs in-house, others either because of space, budget or other reasons, outsource their lunch programs. Will the new money allotted to lunch programs change outsourced programs? Do you think more schools may choose to outsource with a “bigger” budget now? 

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act provides an increase in meal reimbursement as well as potential increases in the number of eligible children that will be served in the program. While these changes represent an increase in available funding for the school meal programs administered nationwide it is not clear how they might impact local decisions about outsourcing. Many factors, such as access to markets, food service equipment and personnel issues, can influence a school district’s decision to outsource or to retain in-house responsibility for food service management and meal service within the district. 

What changes do you hope to see on students’ plates? Will this help schools feed more students through the lunch program rather than students opting for something from a vending machine? Also will this encourage schools to offer a more “square” meal rather than al a carte options?

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act for the first time gives USDA authority to set nutritional standards for all foods sold in schools, including in vending machines, the "a la carte" lunch lines and school stores. 

Studies show that one-third of all children between the ages of 6 and 19 are overweight or obese. USDA’s school meals are uniquely positioned to combat obesity and improve the diets and nutrition of our children. The National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs reach nearly 32 million children each school day nationwide, and many children consume as many as half their daily calories at school.   

In the near future, USDA will be issuing a proposed rule to set nutritional guidelines for school meals based on recommendations by the Institute of Medicine that are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Through these new standards, we hope to see children consume more fruits and vegetables (such as dark green and red/orange vegetables), whole-grains, low-fat and fat-free milk products, and foods with less sodium, saturated fat and trans fat.

One of the provisions helps create farm to school programs and promote school gardens and local foods — can you offer me any more information on the logistics of putting something like this together? 

When farmers and schools connect, local producers gain revenue, children learn where their food comes from and the school gains an additional source for healthy fruits and vegetables. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act requires USDA to provide competitive grants (that do not exceed $100,000) to schools, state and local agencies, ITOs and others for farm to school activities starting in October 2012.