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School Lunch Laws

School meals are a big deal. They help fuel our students' bodies for the school day. They also play a major role in public health. Some schools combine meal service with physical activity or school health lessons. The issue of childhood obesity and school lunches has come under increasing scrutiny in the past several decades.

Despite efforts by local and national groups – such as the former First Lady Michelle Obama-inspired Let's Move campaign and a host of other advocacy groups for healthy eating, children are continuing to suffer from the harmful effects of unhealthy eating on school campuses. The federal government has taken notice of these health problems facing school-aged children by implementing a major overhaul of the nation's lunch programs.

This article provides a brief overview of school lunch laws in America. These rules help ensure that during the school year, kids from elementary school to high school get meals that are nutritious and affordable. So, let's dive in and learn how laws make lunch periods for students better.

A Brief Background of School Lunch Laws

School meal programs have a long history in the United States, governed by various laws and acts. From civil rights to nutrition guidelines, these laws ensure every student can access a healthy meal. The U.S. Department of Education ensures that all kids have equal meal access no matter the student's background. The United States Code (U.S.C.) contains the federal laws that oversee these programs.

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP)

The National School Lunch Program is the grandfather of school nutrition programs. Started by the National School Lunch Act, this program gives federal funds to public schools. President Harry Truman signed this program into law in 1946.

The funds help to ensure schools can offer reduced-price meals or free school meals to students. Schools offer this to students based on their family's income. These are reimbursable meals. This is because participating schools get money back (a reimbursement) for each meal they serve that meets certain guidelines.

Breakfast is key for a solid start to the school day. The School Breakfast Program does for the morning what the NSLP does for lunch. Schools get money for serving breakfasts that meet the "meal pattern," a set of rules for what a meal should include. Like the NSLP, this program offers reduced-price or free meals based on family income and enrollment information.

Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act

To reduce childhood obesity and increase the health and nutrition of school children in America, the USDA issued new standards for school lunches. Through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the USDA does the following:

  • Sets nutritional guidelines and standards for lunches served in most schools
  • Increases access to free or reduced-cost lunches for students from low-income families
  • Monitors school cafeterias to make sure they meet the nutritional standards

Under the act, schools must offer fruits and vegetables every day, increase the amount of whole-grain foods, and reduce the sodium and fats in foods served — which may also include serving only fat-free or low-fat milk. The new menus also must pay attention to portion sizes to make sure children get calories appropriate to their ages. This act remains in effect today.

Food Service and School Food Authorities (SFA)

So, who's in charge of making sure the food is good and follows the rules? That is the School Food Authority (SFA). It works with the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). It helps plan meals that are tasty and healthy. It follows federal regulations outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

Each state has an agency that works with schools to oversee these programs. They ensure everything is on track and help with special programs like the Summer Food Service Program for meals when school is out. Sometimes, state law can add more rules if they follow federal law. They can also get a waiver to do something a bit differently as long as it meets federal requirements.

Can Schools Ban Certain Lunches?

Parents and educators have asked whether schools can limit what students may bring to school to eat. Some argue that certain rules may interfere with their constitutional rights to raise their children according to their own values. But, some believe that states have an interest in keeping kids safe and healthy through publicly funded lunch programs.

Below are just some of the cases making national news headlines:

  • In Chicago, a local school banned brown-bag lunches
  • In North Carolina, a state inspector took away a student's turkey sandwich and gave her cafeteria chicken nuggets in its place
  • National effort to ban 'pink slime' beef filler from USDA lunches
  • National Physicians Group petitioned to ban milk from school lunches
  • School districts across the country banning sugary drinks, like sodas and juices, from menus
  • California and Massachusetts have considered banning chocolate and flavored milk because of its high sugar content

Usually, it's up to the SFA and the state's laws to decide. They have to balance choice with making sure foods meet health guidelines.

What Can Kids Eat at School?

One possible guide for determining what to pack for your child's lunch is your state's Department of Health and Human Services guidelines. These guidelines typically suggest one serving of meat (or protein products), milk, and grain, and two servings of fruit or vegetables. Parents should also limit or cut out foods with margarine, vegetable shortening, and other trans fats.

It may also be a good idea to contact your school's local Parent Teacher Organization, principal, or school board to ask whether a school lunch policy is in place and what you may do if it conflicts with your beliefs.

Getting Legal Help

If you feel that your school meal programs don't respect your civil rights or your child's, you can seek legal help. Laws are in place to ensure everyone has fair access to these programs, no matter their background.

Speak to an educational attorney about your legal issue today.

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