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School Meals


SCHOOL MEALS. Operating primarily in industrialized countries, such as England, Japan, and the United States, school meals programs have become an integral part of the school day. If efforts by the United Nations and the United States are successful, up to 20 million children in developing countries will be able to participate in a similar program for the first time beginning in the early years of the twenty-first century.

Typically started on a local level, school feeding programs emerged as recognition grew of the link between malnourishment and academic performance. Numerous cities in Europe and the United States, including London, Milan, New York, Paris, and Zurich, established feeding programs by the early twentieth century. Over time, the local programs evolved into statewide and nationwide programs. In 1946 the United States established its National School Lunch Program (NSLP), after finding that many men were rejected for military service during World War II due to malnutrition. The lunch program has grown from serving daily 4.6 million children in 1947 to more than 26 million by the end of the twentieth century. In the 1960s the feeding program was expanded to include a school breakfast program and a summer feeding program primarily targeted to low-income children. In the United States school meals programs are required to offer free and reduced-price meals to children from low-income families. About half of the children participating in the NSLP receive free lunches.

Until 1996, U.S. school meals were required to comply with a meal pattern designed to meet, on average, one-third or one-fourth of the U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for essential nutrients for the lunch or breakfast programs, respectively. The meal pattern for lunch consisted of one serving of meat or meat alternate, two or more servings of vegetables or fruits, a serving of bread or bread alternate, and a serving of fluid milk. Until 1974 lunches were also required to include a teaspoon of butter. Children's diets were found to be high in calories, fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and the number of children who were overweight had more than doubled between 1960 and 1990. In 1995 the United States Department of Agriculture updated its nutritional standards to reflect current scientific knowledge about disease prevention and health promotion. For instance, it is now standard to require that school meals contain no more than 30 percent calories from fat and 10 percent from saturated fat. Earlier in the decade a nationwide study of school meals had found that school lunch and breakfast programs met the RDA requirements, but were well above the nutritional guidelines for fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. As a result, both school lunch and breakfast programs, for the first time, had to conform to the 1990 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. States are responsible for ensuring that schools are compliant. Since then most of the nation's 96,000 schools have substantially reduced their fat and saturated fat levels, and increased their levels of carbohydrates.

At times, the dual mission of providing nutritious school meals and encouraging the consumption of domestically grown commodities has created a tension between nutrition advocates and farm groups. The distribution of government commodities was often viewed by the nutrition and health communities as a barrier to providing healthy meals. This conflict has diminished with the new nutrition standards and policy changes in commodity purchases that include increased purchases of fresh produce and lower fat items. Unresolved issues seen by nutrition advocates include the presence of junk food vending machines in schools and the growing number of private food service companies replacing or competing with the government's school meals programs.

See also Dietary Guidelines ; Food Stamps ; Government Agencies, U.S. ; Malnutrition ; Nutrition ; Obesity ; WIC (Women, Infants, and Children's) Program .


Gunderson, Gordon W. The National School Lunch Program: Background and Development. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture.

School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study II. Washington, D.C.: Food and Nutrition Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2001.

Patricia McGrath Morris

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