Children’s School Lunches: Their History and Potential Future

Feb 02, 2017 | Labs Blog

By Alexis Juergens for

alexis-juergensIn 1946, Congress passed the National School Lunch Act. This act states that “It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food, by assisting the States, through grant-in-aid and other means, in providing an adequate supply of food and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, operation, and expansion of nonprofit school lunch programs.”[1] Once this act was passed, programs expanded to help feed more children and Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon both increased the budgets for school lunch programs.[2]

However, in 1981, this drastically changed when the Reagan administration cut Federal school lunch spending by $1.5 billion. This shrank the sizes of children’s lunches, and classified ketchup as a vegetable in order to meet the nutrition standards. Because there was less federal support, school lunches in the 1980s and 1990s became increasingly privatized and nutrition standards were essentially forgotten. [3]

In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which allowed the Department of Agriculture to revamp school meals in order to meet better nutrition standards.[4] This Act proposed separating fruits and vegetables into different categories to increase the total amount offered to kids.[5] Specifically, the USDA stated that at least once a week, lunches were to offer one half-cup serving of each of the following: dark green vegetables (spinach, broccoli), orange vegetables (carrots, squash), legumes (chickpeas, kidney beans), starchy vegetables (white potatoes, corn) and “other vegetables,” including tomatoes.[6] The USDA also wanted to see at least half of the grain servings within lunches be whole grain.[7]

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As these new guidelines were being developed by the USDA, there was a large push to change the way tomato paste was defined and measured as a vegetable.[8] Under current regulations, “one eighth of a cup of tomato paste counted as one half cup of vegetables, essentially inflating its serving size, making it easier for pizza to be made with ingredients that have a serving of ‘vegetables.’”[9] This classification of tomato paste captured headlines because with tomato paste counting as a half cup of vegetables, school lunches were technically able to consider pizza as a “vegetable” due to the tomato paste present on the pizza. In January of 2011, the USDA proposed to change this rule to count purees, such as tomato paste, based on “volume as served” so schools were no longer able to count the tomato puree as a half vegetable serving.[10] However, Congress adjusted the bill to preserve tomato paste’s “special treatment.”[11]

Although this classification of tomato paste still stands, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 has indeed improved the nutrition of school lunches.[12] “97% of schools have embraced updated, healthier meal standards; kids are now eating at least 13% more of their entrees, at least 16% more vegetables and 23% more fruit at lunch; and nearly 4 million children have access to healthy food in the summer when school is out and meals are scarce.”[13]

While this Act was ultimately beneficial, it expired on September 30, 2015. Luckily, these child nutrition programs continue to operate because the reauthorization of these programs is not required for them to continue.[14] In 2016, there was a Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill on the Hill; however, due to large policy differences between the House and Senate Versions of this bill, it was not enacted.

So, what does the future look like for school lunches under a Trump presidency? Although President Trump has yet to weigh in on school meal regulations, he is known to be a large patron of fast-food.[15] Now that the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act of 2010 has expired, there may be potential for these healthy food regulations to change drastically. Republican Robert Aderholt of Alabama states that he “would be very surprised if [I] don’t see some major changes on the school lunch program.”[16] Although President Trump still has not commented on school meal regulations, there is the potential for all the progress that has been accomplished under the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act of 2010 to change dramatically.

Alexis Juergens is currently a second year law student. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Northern Arizona University with a B.S. in Criminology and Criminal Justice with a double minor in English and Biology. While also studying at Northern Arizona University, Alexis was a Division I swimmer and named All American National Strength & Conditioning Association Athlete of the Year in 2015. She is interested in litigation with a focus on Intellectual Property law, and worked with Maschoff Brennan over her 1L summer. Alexis is involved with many organizations at the law school including president of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund, secretary of Student Litigation Society, and the 2L representative for the Student Intellectual Property Law Association and Sports Law Club.