What are the nutritional standards required for school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and which foods schools are serving to meet these standards.
Looking at the nutrition standards for school meals document provided by the School Nutrition Association, it’s clear what the government requires of schools in terms of the food groups being served, the caloric minimums and maximums for each meal and age group, sodium, sugar, and fat reduction requirements, and access to free drinking water.
Schools participating in the NSLP must adhere to the following nutritional standards:
- School breakfasts and lunches must include one half cup of fruits or vegetables but they must offer students one full cup if the student requests more
- Schools must serve a range of legumes, dark green leafy vegetables, and red or orange vegetables every week.
- All grains served must be at least 51% whole grain.
- Meals must contain zero added trans fats, and saturated fats can only account for 10% of calories.
- One cup of fat-free or 1% milk must be offered at each meal.
- Free drinking water must be available at breakfast and lunch.
When it comes to caloric intake, school meals must meet the following minimums and maximums by age group
- K-5 students must receive between 350-500 calories for breakfast and 550-650 calories for lunch.
- Grades 6-8 students must receive between 400-550 calories for breakfast and 600-700 calories for lunch.
- Grades 9-12 students must receive between 450-600 calories for breakfast and 750-850 calories for lunch.
The following sodium intake standards are in place as of July 2022:
- K-5 students must receive less than, or equal to, 430 mg at breakfast and 640 mg at lunch.
- Grades 6-8 students must receive less than, or equal to, 470 mg at breakfast and 710 mg at lunch.
- Grades 9-12 students must receive less than, or equal to, 500 mg at breakfast and 740 mg at lunch.
These meals can look drastically different between schools. A school breakfast meeting these strict nutritional standards could include anything from a blueberry pancake wrap with sausage to a breakfast burrito with salsa, or a yogurt parfait with granola. A school lunch could include anything from chicken potpie with a biscuit and a salad, mini bean burritos on a whole wheat wrap with a salad and a side of fruit, or a chicken salad with a whole grain pita and an apple. The beauty of the program is that it allows districts to be creative in what they serve and how they serve it based on the wants and needs of local children.