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School Food Service

School Food Service

There are 48 million school children who are served by school food services in the United States everyday. Many of these children participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which was established by Congress in 1946 to provide low-cost or free nutritionally sound lunches to public school children. By 1946, about 7.1 million children were being served. This grew to 22 million by 1970, and by 2000 more than 27.4 million children were fed through the NSLP. Since 1946 more than 180 billion lunches have been served. School food service and the NSLP play a very important role in children's learning.

The NSLP is administered by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) at the federal level and by state educational agencies at the local level. Most school districts have a food service or child nutrition service director who oversees the work of cafeteria managers and staff in individual school cafeterias. In many school districts, meals are prepared from scratch by kitchen staff, while many districts contract commercial caterers to provide the food. Fast-food companies are also competing to get into school cafeterias.

School districts that participate in the NSLP receive cash subsidies and food commodities from the USDA. They serve lunches to eligible students (who may receive the meals free or at a reduced price) and are then reimbursed for the meals. In addition to the NSLP, the School Breakfast Program (SBP) was begun in 1966. By 2001, 7.7 million students were served free or reduced-price breakfasts through the SBP.

Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level (as described by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service) are eligible for free meals. Those from families with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reducedpriced meals. Usually these children pay no more than forty cents for lunch and thirty cents for breakfast. School food-service programs must operate their business as nonprofit programs.

To qualify for federal reimbursements, school lunches must meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) which recommend that no more than 30 percent of an individual's total caloric intake come from fat , and no more than 10 percent from saturated fat . Federal regulations also mandate that school lunches provide one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein , vitamin A, vitamin C, iron , calcium , and calories . The SBP provides breakfasts that meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and provide one-fourth of the RDA for the above nutrients . RDAs vary for children of different ages. Elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools should therefore serve meals that meet the age-appropriate RDAs. Table 1 shows the school lunches that meet the RDA requirements of children at different grade levels.

Plate Waste

Children do not always eat everything on their lunch or breakfast trays. While the USDA attempts to mandate compliance in nutrition integrity of meals provided by school food service, there is no guarantee that children will actually consume everything. G. Richard Jansen and Judson M. Harper, in their 1978 study of the consumption and plate waste of food in the NSLP of fifty-eight elementary schools and high schools, reported that of the 23,000 lunches measured, students tended not to eat all items in the meals. High school students tended to waste less food than elementary students. In 2001, Shanklin found that while students chose meals that were healthful, many did not finish their meals. Vegetables were the least popular item in the meals. While 64 percent of the students selected green peas, most of the students discarded half of what they chose.

The issue of plate waste is an important one. Parents and teachers may help by educating students about nutrition and the importance of eating healthful meals, while school-food service personnel can strive to offer nutritious choices in ways that students will find more appealing.

Competitive Foods

According to the USDA, competitive foods are foods "sold to children in food service areas during meal periods in competition with the federal meal programs." The USDA divides competitive foods into two categories. The first is foods of minimal nutritional value (FMNV). USDA regulations prohibit the sale of FMNV in school-food service areas during mealtimes. FMVN include carbonated drinks (such as sweetened soft drinks), chewing gum, and candy. These items may be sold in other areas at anytime during the school day. States and local school districts may have their own restrictions on the sale of FMNV.

The second category includes other foods offered for individual sale in food service or other areas on a school campus. These foods may include

  Preschool Grades K6 Grades 712
*1. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that after 2 years of age, children should gradually adopt a diet, that by about 5 years of age, contains no more than 30 percent of calories from fat.
2. Not to exceed 30 percent over a school week
3. Less than 10 percent over a school week.
"RE" refers to "retinol equivalent," a measure of the vitamin A activity in foods.
Calories 517 664 825
Total fat (percentage of total food energy) *1 *1, 2 *2
Saturated fat (percentage of actual total food energy) *1 * 1, 3 *3
RDA for protein (g) 7 10 16
RDA for calcium (mg) 267 267 286 400
RDA for iron (mg) 3.3 3.5 4.5
RDA for vitamin A (RE) 150 224 300
RDA for vitamin C (mg) 14 15 18

second servings of foods from the NSLP, a la carte items, and other foods and beverages from vending machines, school stores, or snack bars that students buy in addition to or in place of the NSLP.

FMNV items include snacks that are high in fat and sugar, as well as sodas, which are dense with empty calories. Most of these items are offered in vending machines, snack bars, school stores, and sometimes as fund raisers that occur during mealtimes at school. These foods have certain characteristics. First, they have minimal nutritional value and have no regulated nutrition standards. Second, these foods usually contain high amounts of fat, calories, and sugar. In many schools, the lunch period does not offer sufficient time for students to stand in line, get their food and to eat it. In cases where lines are long at the school cafeteria, many students choose to buy snacks from vending machines. Often students spend all their lunch money in the vending machines before they get to the cafeteria.

School food service (SFS) personnel face many problems when it comes to providing quality service to children. For one thing, they are not allowed to make a profit. Yet, they have to compete with commercial food caterers for staff and customers. They also have to provide meals that are appealing, low cost, and that follow the DGA and federal regulations for RDAs in order to qualify for reimbursements for free and reduced-price lunches. While most parents do not mind giving their children as much as five dollars to spend at fast-food restaurants, they complain about spending $2.75 for a well-prepared nutritious school meal for their children.

SFS personnel have to please the school administrators, parents, teachers, children, and the public in order to be successful. The public is often not aware that cafeteria workers work very hard, often get no benefits because most of them are part-time workers, get paid less than their counterparts in commercial operations, and do not get much appreciation for their work. Strangely, many cafeteria workers remain in their jobs for long periods. Many of America's school cafeterias are staffed by dedicated individuals who love children.

The American School Food Service Association maintains that their mission goes beyond traditional school meal programs to better their schools and communities. They are committed to the health and well-being of the children served by their programs.

see also Adolescent Nutrition; School-Aged Children, Diet of.

Kweethai C. Neill


Jansen, G. R. and Harper, J. M. (1978). "Consumption and Plate Waste of Menu Items Served in the National School Lunch Program." Journal of the American Dietetic Association 73 (4), 395400.

Shanklin, C. "Kids Choose Healthy Lunches, But Don't Eat Them." Journal of the American Dietetic Association 101, 10601063.

Internet Resources

U.S. Department of Agriculture. "National School Lunch Program." Available from <>

U.S. Department of Agriculture. "School Breakfast Program." Available from <>

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Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (1946)

Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (1946)

James Walker

Throughout much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many state and local school districts provided food for their students to promote learning. The idea of whether the federal government ought to play a role in child nutrition was not raised until the Great Depression, when Congress began to appropriate federal dollars to assist states facing severe economic distress. In the 1930s the federal government began to distribute surplus food to states for use in local schools. Later, when food distribution became difficult during the war years, the government awarded cash grants enabling states to purchase food at local markets. Not only did these programs help states feed poor children, but they also created a market for farm goods, which worked to the benefit of the farmers.

By the 1940s, however, it was still painfully obvious that too many of America's youth, especially in the South, remained grossly undernourished. This lack of nourishment was especially problematic and notable when a number of young men failed armed forces physicals after being drafted for World War II.

Richard B. Russell, a senator from Georgia, proposed a school lunch program in March 1944 to combat the problem of malnutrition. Senator Russell, although not personally touched by poverty, was well aware of the plight of many of his fellow Georgians, especially children. He also represented a rural state, where farmers had suffered for years from chronically low prices for their goods. Russell proved well positioned to champion a federal program that could address both problems.

The school lunch proposal was very popular and its main opponent, Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, felt compelled to say that while providing school lunches to poor children was a good idea, it was not something in which the federal government should be involved. Taft, a traditional conservative, believed the federal government should have a very limited role in the lives of its citizens; the states, he believed, should provide the bulk of any services or assistance Americans needed. His view of American federalism allocated a very small role to the federal government, while Russell and others saw the federalist structure as essentially a cooperation between the two jurisdictions of state and federal government.

In passing the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (79 P.L. 396, 60 Stat. 230), Congress relied on its constitutional power to tax and spend for the general welfare. The primary stated purpose of the act was to promote adequate nutrition among school-aged children, but a secondary purpose was to encourage domestic consumption of American agricultural products. The act did this by allocating surplus food and grants-in-aid to states so local school districts could provide lunches for children who might otherwise go hungry. In the legislation's words:

It is hereby declared 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 consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food, by assisting the states, through grants-in-aid and other means, in providing an adequate supply of foods and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, operation, and expansion of nonprofit school lunch programs.

Although litigants have not directly challenged the school lunch program, the issue of federal grants-in-aid to states with conditions attached has been litigated many times and has been firmly established as a constitutional power of the federal government. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Constitution gives Congress broad powers to expend funds, as in United States v. Butler (1936), and to attach conditions to those expenditures, as in Fullilove v. Klutznick (1980).

Over the years Congress has amended the act dozens of times to increase its scope and funding. The program that cost $70 million in 1947 grew to cost over $6.4 billion at the turn of the twenty-first century, when it provided lunches to twentyfive million students nationwide. Perhaps just as important, the school lunch program led directly to the Child Nutrition Act of 1966, an act that empowered the Department of Agriculture to expand nutrition programs. With this increased scope, the government also created the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children in 1972. So what started out as a clever way to use surplus food, became a national commitment to nutrition for all American citizens.

See also: Elementary and Secondary Education Act.


Fite, Gilbert C., and Richard B. Russell, Jr. Senator From Georgia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Gay, James Thomas. "Richard B. Russell and the National School Lunch Program." In Georgia Historical Quarterly 80, no. 4, Winter (1996).


The School Lunch Program. <>.

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American School Food Service Association

American School Food Service Association

The American School Food Service Association (ASFSA), founded in 1946, is dedicated to ensuring that "healthful meals and nutrition education are available to all children." Its stated mission is "to advance good nutrition for all children" (ASFSA).

The majority of ASFSA members are school food-service administrators, managers, educators, or personnel who advance the availability, quality, and acceptance of school nutrition programs as an integral part of education. Members can also join their state or local association, or pursue an option for professional certification. Through its annual national conference and state meetings, members, students, and interested professionals can network and receive continuing education credits. The association publishes School Foodservice & Nutrition.

see also School Food Service; School-Aged Children, Diet of.

Susan P. Himburg


Payne-Palacio, June, and Canter, Deborah D. (2000). The Profession of Dietetics: A Team Approach, 2nd edition. New York: Prentice Hall.

Internet Resource

American School Food Service Association. "About ASFSA." Available from <>

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