National School Lunch Program

The following details refer to the National School Lunch ACT of 1946 which created the modern school lunch program. The goal of this activity is to have children understand that the National School Lunch Program provides for lunches in schools across the country; these lunches are required by law to meet certain standards.  Some foods go through processing that converts them 5 star choices to 2 and 0 star choices.  For example, fruits are sometimes processed into fruit pies, fruit pops, etc; grains are processed into cookies, brownies, etc.; and vegetables have cheese added which increases the fat content.

National School Lunch Program Details

The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program operating in over 101,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It strives to provide nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to more than 31 million children each school day. The program objective is to provide a nutritious, well-balanced lunch for children in order to promote sound eating habits, to foster good health and academic achievement and to reinforce the nutrition education taught in the classroom. The School Meals Initiative law mandates that school meals provide 1/3 of the Recommended Dietary Allowances for lunch and be consistent with Dietary Guidelines for Americans and caloric goals.

The Food and Nutrition Service administers the program at the Federal level. At the State level, the National School Lunch Program is usually administered by State education agencies, which operate the program through agreements with school food authorities.

In addition to cash reimbursements, schools are entitled by law to receive USDA foods, called “entitlement” foods. Schools can also get “bonus” USDA foods as they are available from surplus agricultural stocks.  States select entitlement foods for their schools from a list of various foods purchased by USDA and offered through the school lunch program. Bonus foods are offered only as they become available through agricultural surplus. The variety of both entitlement and bonus USDA foods schools can get from USDA depends on quantities available and market prices.

Commodity processing allows State distributing agencies and eligible recipient agencies such as school districts to contract with commercial food processors to convert raw bulk USDA commodities into more convenient, ready-to-use end products. USDA began commodity processing in 1958 to permit agencies to maximize the use of donated commodities. Most of the commodities processed through the program go to schools participating in the National School Lunch Program.

By participating in Commodity Processing, State distributing agencies and recipient agencies find that they can: Stretch their commodity dollars by ordering lower-cost bulk products; Eliminate back-hauling charges because USDA vendors deliver commodities directly to processors; Increase their variety of end products; Reduce labor costs and cash outlays for food preparation; and Reduce storage costs.

Congress enacted a law in 1995 known as the School Meals Initiative which requires school meals to comply with the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This law established specific minimum standards for calories and key nutrients that school meals must meet. The USDA implemented the School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children (SMI) to provide healthy school meals that are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. All school food authorities participating in the National School Lunch Program must undergo a School Meals Initiative (SMI) review on a cyclical basis.

Results from the latest (2009) SMI Report indicate that only 45% of the 2000 plus schools required by law to complete the survey actually did.  The results from the schools that did as required by law indicate that there is no change over the last decade when it comes to improving the National School Lunch Program.

  • Less than 8% of the schools involved in the review met the Dietary Guidelines for Americans – yes you heard me correctly – less than 8%.
  • Less than 30% of the schools involved in the review met the guidelines for fat intake
  • Less than 7% of the schools involved in the review met the guidelines for fiber intake
  • Less than 10% of the schools involved in the review met the guidelines for sodium intake

New Guidelines

The USDA has set new guidelines for school meals for the first time in 15 years. The guidelines double the amounts of fruits and vegetables in school lunches and boost offerings of whole grain-rich foods. The new standards set maximums for calories and cut sodium and trans fat, a contributor to high cholesterol levels.  Schools may offer only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties and must assure that children are getting proper portion sizes.

The new standards will be largely phased in over a three-year period, starting in the 2012-13 school year. As an example of a new meal (see Appendix), the USDA said an elementary school lunch could be whole wheat spaghetti with meat sauce and a whole wheat roll, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, kiwi, low-fat milk, low-fat ranch dip and soft margarine. That lunch would replace a meal of a hot dog on a bun with ketchup, canned pears, raw celery and carrots with ranch dressing, and low-fat chocolate milk.

With the new guidelines in place motivating, empowering and educating children on how to make healthy lunch choices becomes even more critical.


Begin a discussion about the National School Lunch Program.  This discussion should be kept short (approximately 10 minutes) with the goal of having the children answer the following questions:

  1. What is the National School Lunch Program and what changes are being made this year?
    1. It is a program that provides lunch in most schools across the county and the new changes mean that we will have more fruits, vegetables and whole grains to choose from.
    2. What is the School Meals Initiative?
      1. It is a program that oversees the lunch program to be sure that the food being served is healthy and follows the government guidelines.
    3. What does commodity processing mean?
      1. It means that the foods served can be processed (changed) and sometimes this changes the foods from 5 star choices to 2 star and even 0 star choices. Example: fruit into fruit pies; process vegetables and add cheese, etc.; grains into cookies, brownies, etc.