School Food Shapes Learning and Health—and Our Food System
At HSC, we take a systems approach to transforming school food and recognize the powerful role that policy plays in determining what students find on their cafeteria trays.
We place a high priority on school food policy because we recognize its power to:
Fuel learning: Healthy meals support schools’ core mission of education, especially when it comes to boosting students’ concentration, focus and cognitive function. A vast body of research shows that improved nutrition in schools leads to increased focus and attention, improved test scores and better classroom behavior.
Support healthy habits and consistent messages: Nutritious school food helps students develop lifelong healthy eating habits. It also contributes to a culture of wellness at school, reinforcing nutrition education messages from teachers. Healthy school food can also increase school connectedness and reinforce to children, families and community that students’ health and well-being are valued.
Drive change in the marketplace and food system: We see school food as a lever for food systems change. School food is a $16.3 billion federally funded program. This use of public dollars creates an important opportunity and responsibility for a policy discussion about nutrition standards, procurement and food systems. Strong nutrition standards in the school meal program can drive changes in the consumer markets. School food also influences the taste buds and values of the next generations of consumers.
Policy Shaping School Food
School food is shaped by policy at three key levels: The federal government funds the program, sets nutrition guidelines and outlines general policy; states manage the programs; and local school districts implement them.
National: Progress at Risk
The National School Lunch Program is fundamentally a federal program that was originally created “as a measure of national security” as so many recruits were rejected from military service in World War II because of malnourishment. The federal government continues to play a primary role in funding and defining the program.
Recent years have brought significant progress for school food policy at the national level. Now, this progress is being rolled back.
In 2010, Congress reauthorized the Child Nutrition Act—the policy that funds and defines the school food program, and comes up for reauthorization every five years—with a bill called the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. This included key policy progress, including:
- Authorizing the USDA to bring the nutrition standards for the school meal program into alignment with the latest science-based dietary guidelines for the first time in more than 15 years.
- Creating a federally-funded farm-to-school program.
- Establishing guidelines supporting consistent healthy messages throughout the school, including limits on junk food advertising in schools.
- Providing a community eligibility provision, which increased access to healthy school food in districts with high percentages of low-income students.
The new nutrition standards authorized by this policy went into effect in the fall of 2012. These standards brought significant progress, adding more fruits and vegetables and more whole grains while trimming excess calories, fat and sodium.
Research shows the nutrition standards have largely been a success in schools: Studies suggest that students prefer the new, healthier school meals; school meal participation is trending upward; and children are consuming more fruits and vegetables at school and throwing away less food. Implementing the standards has not been without challenges, as school food service staff worked through the trial and error of developing new menus and helping students accept the healthier options. Now, evidence suggests this work has paid off: the USDA reports that 95 percent of schools across the country are meeting or exceeding the healthier meal standards. A recent poll from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation found 86 percent of Americans support the current school nutrition standards, and 93 percent of Americans think that serving nutritious school food to students is important.
Yet, at the end of 2018, the Trump Administration issued a rule rolling back progress in three key areas: sodium, whole grains and flavored milk. The rule eliminated the final sodium target, eliminated the need for waivers to serve refined-grain food half the time, and allowed for the sale of 1 percent flavored milk.
States: Policy Varies
States play an important regulatory role in implementing the National School Food Program; they also set policy in several key areas where federal policy creates room for states to determine their own standards. Many states also provide additional funding to support the school meal program.
Federal school food policy specifically identifies several significant areas for states to set their own policy, including:
- Elements of the school meal program, including universal breakfast, USDA Foods options, waivers for meeting national standards related to whole grains and more
- Competitive foods standards, including rules around junk food fundraising
States set other policies that affect the school food environment, such as requirements related to food allergies and other medical conditions. Many states also set policies to prioritize healthy school meals through initiatives such as Farm to School.
As a result of this flexibility, state policy and implementation strategies vary widely across the country. To see where your state stands, see the National Association of State Boards of Education State School Health Policy Database School Meals section. For innovative examples of successful state efforts to promote healthy school food, see Promising Practices of State Child Nutrition Programs.
For more, see What You Can Do.
Districts: Putting Policy in Action
Local school district policy shapes food directly as districts are responsible for implementing the program in schools. For example, school districts hire food service staff, build and maintain kitchen facilities, and decide how much time students will have to eat lunch. They create menus and make decisions about how food is procured, how it’s prepared and how it’s presented.
Each district that participates in the National School Lunch Program (virtually every public school district in the country) is required to have a Local School Wellness Policy that addresses the school food and fitness environment. It is up to each district to make this policy useful and robust. For example, local school wellness policies can:
- Set nutrition guidelines that exceed the USDA’s requirements
- Establish health-promoting policies around fundraisers and classroom celebrations
- Prioritize nutrition education that helps boost student acceptance of healthier meals
Parents and community members can play an important role in advocating for a strong wellness policy. See What You Can Do for more.
Much of our school food policy work at HSC is informed by our work on the ground at the local level in Chicago. In particular, our approach focuses on 10 interconnected pathways to excellence in school nutrition developed by parent and stakeholder school food advisory groups that we co-convened with Chicago Public Schools. Learn more about what we’re doing.
Speaking Up for Healthy School Food
HSC’s work to transform school food focuses on policy change at the national, state and local levels. Because the program is shaped significantly at each level of policy, we need alignment on all three levels to achieve the goal of fresh, healthy meals for every student.
At each level, our approach is to empower, advocate and build. For example, our school food policy efforts focus on:
- Empowering school stakeholders, including students, parents and school food service leaders.
- Advocating for policies that promote healthy school foods.
- Building the capacity of local, state and federal institutions to support and implement health-promoting policies.
At the national level, efforts to roll back progress on school food policy have centered on the myth that students universally reject healthy school food. At HSC, we believe the most powerful and relevant response to this is from the students themselves. As a result, much of our national food policy work focuses on making sure that often-unheard student voices are part of this debate. We do this work through Cooking up Change, a competition for high school culinary students challenging them to create a healthy school meal that their peers will enjoy. Their culinary creations are proof positive that healthy school meals can taste great and appeal to students.
At the state level, HSC advocates for policy in Illinois to support healthy school food. HSC focuses on support for robust implementation of the standards determined in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and particularly on building schools’ long-term capacity to support healthful school food programs.
As at the national level, we also work to elevate student voices in the state policy dialogue about healthy school food through Cooking up Change. For example, the winning student chefs from Cooking up Change Chicago each year present their meal to the Illinois State Board of Education and share their perspective on the value of healthy school food.
As HSC works for change on a national level, we are grounded in a special focus on Chicago Public Schools, where more than 85 percent of the district’s 400,000 students come from low-income families. We focus on empowering school stakeholders, advocating for district-level policies for healthy school food, and building the district’s capacity to procure and serve fresh, healthy food in a pleasant environment.
In particular, we are motivated by a vision for school food centered on ten interconnected pathways which are critical to the success of school food programs. We developed these pathways through our work with parent and stakeholder school food advisory groups we co-convened with Chicago Public Schools. Read more about the pathways and our work for school food in Chicago.
In addition to our work in Chicago, we provide tools and resources to support parents and other advocates in making change in their own communities. See our Resource Center for more.
Raise Your Voice: National
Your voice is especially vital as we approach a moment of risk and opportunity for national school food policy. As the administration proposes new rules that roll back progress and Congress gears up to reauthorize the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, your voice is more important than ever.
You can raise your voice in support of healthy school food policy by urging your elected leaders to maintain the recent progress supporting healthy food and healthy students.
Raise Your Voice: State
Because state-level school food policy varies greatly from state to state, the crucial first step for advocates seeking change at the state level is to understand your state’s particular policy environment.
An excellent starting point is the National Association of State Boards of Education State School Health Policy Database, which includes state-level detail about policies focused on school meals, competitive foods, wellness policies and more.
For highlights of successful strategies used by state agency leaders to promote healthy school food, see Promising Practices of State Child Nutrition Programs.
We encourage you to speak with leaders at your school to understand their school food challenges and opportunities, talk with parents about what they see, and learn about any advocacy organizations who may be working on this issue in your state. Based on this information, you can identify the most practical approach to creating change. See HSC’s Resource Center for more.
Raise Your Voice: Local
Many key policy decisions about school food are made at the local district and school levels. Your voice matters in your community! We encourage you to get involved in your school’s wellness committee, learn about your district’s Local School Wellness Policy, and talk with students about their experience with school lunch. For more, see our step-by-step guide to creating change through a school wellness committee.
Seemingly small decisions at the local and school level can have a tremendous impact. For example, a recent study found that adding just five minutes to students’ available lunch time led to a big jump in the amount of fresh produce they ate.
Stay Informed + Stay Connected
Informing yourself about the issues involved in school health and sharing this information with others is an important step in creating meaningful change. It’s about learning, sharing and sparking conversations that get people thinking. We encourage you to:
- Check out our Resource Center
- Sign up to receive our newsletters
- Connect with us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @healthyschools
Make a Donation
As a nonprofit organization, we rely on support from people like you so we can continue to make schools healthier places where all children can learn and thrive. Your gift—large or small—will make a meaningful difference.
School Food Resources
Access related resources below, or go to our main Resource Center to access resources across all of our program and policy areas.
Ingredient Guide for Better School Food Purchasing
This guide from School Food Focus is a resource for school food leaders and manufacturers alike who are committed to improving the overall quality, nutritional value, and safety of food provided to all students in every school. It highlights unwanted ingredients to eliminate, or those to watch out for, as new food products are developed and others are modified.