In 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National School Lunch Program (NSLP), one of the largest food and nutrition programs in the world, provided more than 4 billion lunches to children in the United States. This program began in 1946 when Congress implemented a permanent national school lunch program, which grew to be one of the nation’s largest domestic food programs. However, the program that once satisfied both nutritionists and farmers shifted to create a new market for major foodservice companies in order to help children in need, according to a text on school lunch politics and welfare.

Even though there are nutritional guidelines set forth in order for schools to receive reimbursement, significant variation of nutritional quality among NSLP meals is still common (Joyce, Rosenkranz, and Rosenkranz 2018). For example, our research indicates lunches served in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) for kindergarten through fifth grade included chicken tenders, fried chicken drumsticks, chicken corn dogs, and waffle fries as top menu choices (LAUSD 2019). Our nutrient analysis of the menu indicated that most food choices contain excessive calories and sodium relative to USDA recommendations. This analysis was based on a menu provided by LAUSD for the month of April 2019. As seen in Figure 1, the caloric and sodium intake both exceed the standards by significant amounts.

School Meals Lunch Days

Figure 1. Comparing Calorie and Sodium Intake in Grades K-5 Los Angeles Area School District Lunches in April 2019 with USDA Calorie and Sodium Standards. From Los Angeles Area School District 2019

School Meals Lunch Days

Figure 1. Comparing Calorie and Sodium Intake in Grades K-5 Los Angeles Area School District Lunches in April 2019 with USDA Calorie and Sodium Standards. From Los Angeles Area School District 2019

When looking specifically at April 22, 2019, the planned caloric intake from the lunch meal on that day was approximately 1,180 kcal, nearly twice that of the recommended upper limit of 650 kcal. The planned sodium intake was measured to be about 2,500 mg, which is well above the suggested daily intake of 1,230 mg per day. Drawing from these examples, it is clear that the nutritional profile of lunches, at least in the LAUSD schools, has exceeded the levels of energy and sodium. Clearly, at least with respect to energy and sodium, the nutrition offerings within LAUSD need improvement in order to meet federal nutrition standards.

Addressing the Obstacles

At least two examples of inappropriateness within the LAUSD school meal program were noted above. Thus, it is imperative that we transition to a model of change and improvement to improve nutritional intake, which should contribute to the well-being of students in Los Angeles and across the United States. However, before implementing strategic improvement programs, barriers to entry with the potential to hinder this progress and change must be identified and carefully strategized against.

Funding is, and always will be, the greatest hurdle to overcome in terms of implementing novel district-wide nutrition programs. In districts such as LAUSD where over 150 million meals are served each year, spread among 400,000 breakfast and 350,000 lunch meals each day (LAUSD 2019), a system- wide increase of even a single cent per meal could spell enormous budgeting shortages elsewhere. In turn, perceived value needs to be sought, not solely in the meal program budget itself, but more so in the farreaching value that these healthy food and meal programs can contribute to students’ intellectual potential both within the classroom and beyond.

Measuring financial worthiness should no longer be viewed through the tunnel vision of meeting arbitrary budgets. Countless students’ nutritional intake depends on the meals served at their primary and secondary schools; thus, it is imperative that school districts rise to the crucial responsibility of serving healthy, balanced meals every day. The implementation of innovative plans and solutions must take place to bridge the current nutritional gap and improve the lives of students today and in the future.

Effective Activism

In looking for creative and effective solutions for providing appetizing and nutritious meals to elementary-aged children, we look to successful school lunch programs around the world. For example, since 1952, Japan has promoted both a healthy body and mind through its School Lunch Act, which incorporates educational activities that include students preparing and serving meals, leading to a better understanding of a balanced diet and food culture among young students. In 2007, Japan also implemented a Diet and Nutrition Teacher System, which aimed to increase awareness and interest about diet among teachers and guardians. Since implementing the program that impacted nearly 10 million children in approximately 31,000 schools, the proportion of children skipping breakfast and absenteeism decreased and quality of life has improved (Tanaka and Miyoshi 2012). Other cost-effective and nutritionally adept school lunch programs can be found in Brazil and France (Soares, Nehring, Schwengber, et al. 2018; Vieux, Dubois, Duchêne, et al. 2018). Several U.S. programs have successfully incorporated farm-toschool programs that provide locally grown nutritious produce for school meals, as well as innovative nutrition education (Shedd, Stephens, Matts, et al. 2018).

The implementation of innovative plans and solutions must take place to bridge the current nutritional gap and improve the lives of students today and in the future.

A multi-sectoral collaborative effort among a few groups is needed, including those in the food industry and allied professions, to provide low-cost, high-quality meals and nutrition education to students and faculty alike. Considering a farm-to-table approach, collaboration with local food growers can provide regional and seasonal fruits and vegetables. At 150 million meals per year, school lunch programs are an untapped market for local California farmers (LAUSD 2019). To gain interest in farm-to-table endeavors,school garden initiatives provide experiential learning opportunities for young students to learn about where nutritious meals come from and provide a small, but accessible source of fresh produce (Shafer 2018). Partnering with culinary educational institutes could not only provide meal preparation with locally sourced foods for LAUSD students but also stimulate aesthetic and savory meal preparations that encourage consumption of high-nutrientvalue foods. The collaboration could benefit culinary students with opportunities to practice culinary skills, large- and small-scale food production, and experimentation with a variety of cultural foods that cater to the diversity of the Los Angeles community and the thousands of other districts that meet the USDA Community Eligibility Provision criteria.

To reduce costs, collaboration with the private sector via partnerships with large food industry corporations and emerging entrepreneurs is essential. These food-related businesses are already at work supporting youth nutrition with millions of dollars, donating produce to the Feeding America network of food banks and also lending employees to help with food safety and logistics (Preston 2016). It is through these and many other promising efforts that food scientists, nutritionists, dietitians, and other related professionals can start to bridge the nutritional gap in our school meal programs and begin to support our students and future leaders with healthy bodies and healthy minds. 

Philip Spektor ([email protected]), AlbertWang ([email protected]), BaileyRohlfing ([email protected]), and LilitOganessian ([email protected]) are graduate students in the Global Medicine program at the University of Southern California School of Medicine.

In This Article

  1. Diet and Health
  2. Food Policy