Regardless of how they treat themselves, most people want the best for their kids. With childhood obesity reaching record highs and major medical concerns occurring at earlier ages, providing nutritious meals to kids is a top priority for many people.

School lunches in particular undergo substantial scrutiny from all sides; because children must attend school, it’s likely that at least one meal a day during the week will be eaten in a school cafeteria. Some kids eat breakfast there as well, making the school the primary source of nutrition for the majority of a child’s meals during 12 years of schooling.

Some groups, such as the Healthy School Lunch campaign launched by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), are working to put healthy food choices on cafeteria menus throughout the country. Recent media attention regarding the infamous “pink slime” and the passing of a bill that would classify pizza as a vegetable has brought school lunches to the forefront of the public consciousness right now. Are school lunches healthy? What can we do to improve them?

Who Regulates School Lunches?

School lunch programs are funded and regulated by the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). The NSLP provides low-cost or free lunches to students as a way to ensure that all kids have access to food even if their socioeconomic status would prevent them from buying lunch from another source.

All meals provided by the NSLP and served in schools must meet with USDA dietary guidelines. This generally means that each meal should have a serving from each major food group such as grains, vegetables, dairy and protein. In many cases, this may be a more fully-rounded meal than a child is getting at home, but many will argue that the quality is still inferior to what it should be.

The Problem With School Lunches

According to the PCRM, school lunches are lacking in vital nutrition. They tend to be high in saturated fat and cholesterol and don’t contain enough vegetables and whole grains. A cursory glance at school lunches across the country supports this observation in some regards, but refutes it in others. Here are some standard U.S. school lunches:

– Cheeseburger with tater tots, chocolate pudding and chocolate milk
– Chicken nuggets with a wheat roll and mandarin orange slices
– Chicken sandwich on wheat bread, chicken wings, grapefruit and 1% milk
– Mashed potatoes, turkey gravy and a roll
– Spaghetti with meat sauce, garlic bread, lettuce, salad dressing, pears and chocolate milk

As far as food quality is concerned, school lunches fare better than many fast food items, frozen dinners and other packaged and processed foods that a child might run into. The lunches are not as nutritious as they could be, however, as they tend to rely heavily on animal protein, dairy products and refined grains. Wheat bread is a fairly rare commodity in school lunch programs, and kids aren’t likely to run into exotic whole grains like quinoa or spelt any time soon.

Another problem that school lunches face is a reliance on processed foods. Most vegetables are canned, leading to a higher sodium content and a slight reduction in nutrition. Schools may also rely on pre-packaged meat patties, chicken nuggets, frozen tater tots or fries. The quality of these ingredients is sometimes dubious and they sometimes have additives, preservatives or other issues that cause worry for concerned parents.

School Lunch Reform

School lunch programs are constantly being scrutinized and reformed. Schools are definitely responding to media pressure and the requests of parents, lobbyists and other concerned parties. Change isn’t easy, however, because free lunch programs are very costly to run, and under-funded education systems must make budget cuts where they can.

Congress has allotted about $12 billion toward school lunch programs. This may sound like a huge sum, but bear in mind that it’s an annual figure; $1 billion a month must go toward serving around 20 million students. That works out to a little under $2 in government funds a day to feed kids. Of course, many kids do pay a small fee for school lunches as well, about $2 to $3. Even at $5 a day, is it any wonder that kids aren’t getting the highest quality food available?

As various programs like the PCRM work to bring more options and better-quality foodstuffs into school cafeterias, the quality of food at public schools will begin to increase. Schools may move toward certain nutritious and low-cost ingredients, like using whole grains and legumes as a substitute for pricey meat. Lobbying for a change in school lunch will certainly begin to make a difference.

In the meantime, parents can do their part in promoting their child’s health and well-being by instilling healthy eating habits at home. Kids get about 30% of their daily calories from school lunches; it’s the job of parents and guardians to ensure that the other 70% are high-quality and nutritious. By making an effort to improve food quality in all areas of a child’s life, obesity and its related health problems may begin to decline throughout the country.