Common Misconceptions About the National School Lunch Program

February 15, 2016 | Written By:

It’s recently come to our attention that not everyone understands how the National School Meal program works and why the program exists—the latest misinformation coming from the Presidential campaign trail.

This program, which provides nutritionally balanced, low‐cost or free lunches to more than 31 million children each school day, is essential to ensuring that public school students in the U.S. get the nutritious food they need to support their learning.

So, we’d thought we’d clear up some of the common misconceptions about school food.

Fact: The National School Lunch Program is run through the United States Department of Agriculture, not the Department of Education

The National School Lunch Program is run through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). As such, it joins other programs—such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)—that ensure our country’s citizens get the nutritious food they need. It also joins the School Breakfast Program, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, the Summer Food Service Program, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and the Special Milk Program. All of these programs help fight hunger and obesity by reimbursing organizations such as schools, child care centers, and after-school programs for providing healthy meals to children. And all of these programs are administered by state agencies—not the federal government or the Department of Education.

Fact: Local schools determine menus

School districts and independent schools that take part in the lunch program get cash subsidies and USDA foods from the USDA for each meal they serve. In return, they must serve lunches that meet federal requirements, and they must offer free or reduced price lunches to eligible children. While local districts do have to follow the nutritional guidelines set out by the USDA to receive those subsidies, local districts have control over their own menus. No one is telling schools what food to serve on what days. There is nothing that prevents schools from offering French fries, although now they are usually baked. At Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the district sets the menu for elementary schools and high schools on a district-wide basis.

Fact: The program is based in the need for a strong national defense

The National School Lunch Program was established under the National School Lunch Act, which was signed by President Harry Truman in 1946. The program was designed to “safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children.” The program was born out of the concern that much of America’s youth was too malnourished to serve in the military. Today, one quarter of America’s youth are too overweight to serve in the military, which is why the program has retooled its nutrition requirements to ensure students are getting nutritious foods and not just pizza and fries.

As Congress gears up to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, which sets the nutrition standards and funding for the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, it is important to understand the key role that these programs play in supporting the health and success of students across the country.

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