The massive disgusting school lunch issue

Although Growing a Green Family is a newer blog o’ mine, I’ve actually been a pro green blogger and freelance writer for many years and I’ve covered tons of school lunch issues. Since we haven’t looked at school lunch problems here though, and since it’s back to school time, I figured it’s due.

The bottom line – first:

Trust me, after years of covering school lunch issues, I can tell you right up front that you do not want your kid eating school lunches. It’s not 100% across the board but most schools still serve up terrible, totally disgusting school lunches. PLUS schools don’t even make up for the faulty school lunches with physical activity (almost unheard of in schools).

Your kid deserves way better.


The School Health Policies and Practices Study (SHPPS) is a national survey conducted to assess school health policies and practices at the state, district, school, and classroom levels. SHPPS was most recently conducted in 2006 and some of the news related to school lunches + physical activity is extremely depressing. Not all the news is bad. In fact, many of the figures below are improvements from the last SHPPS (2000), but still…

  • 18.2% = The percentage of schools where nutrition specific staff worked with physical education staff on nutrition activities.
  • 2.1% of elementary schools, 6.7% of middle schools, and 24.0% of high schools  = Schools who sell deep-fried foods at lunch.
  • 22.8 minutes = The average time all kids in this country are given to eat lunch.
  • 32.7% of elementary schools, 71.3% of middle schools, and 89.4% of high schools = Schools who offer vending machines or a school store, canteen, or snack bar where students can purchase foods or beverages.
  • 30% = Schools who rarely, if ever offer a vegetable that’s NOT a potato.
  • 26.1% = Amount of school districts that prohibit using food as a reward.
  • 38.9% = School districts and states that DO prohibit junk food sold during breakfast and lunch.
  • 5.5% = States and districts that prohibit offering junk food at concession stands.
  • 18.9% = States and districts that prohibit offering junk food at school stores, canteens, or snack bars.
  • 11.8% states 57.1% districts = Amount of schools that are required to provide elementary schools students with regularly scheduled recess.
  • 6.6% = Amount of school districts requiring that schools make fruits or vegetables available to students whenever food was offered or sold.
  • 18.4% of states + 17.0% of districts = States and districts that require schools to offer healthful beverages such as bottled water or low-fat milk, whenever beverages were offered or sold.
  • 38.8% = Number of districts that require that schools implement food safety practices school wide.
  • 75.8% = Amount of districts that allow advertising for candy, fast food restaurants, or soft drinks on school property.
  • 11.7% of elementary schools, 19.0% of middle schools, and 23.5% of high schools = Amount of schools who offer fast foods from companies such as Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, or Subway. This frankly could be worse, but fast food doesn’t belong in schools at all IMO.
  • 76.8% = Amount of high schools with access to soda pop or sugar-based fruit drinks in vending machines or elsewhere in the school.

Shockingly, in the year preceding the 2006 study, the health department inspected the school’s cafeteria more than 2 times in 19.7% of schools, 2 times in 42.8% of schools, 1 time in 32.7% of schools and never in 4.7% of schools. Additionally, only 86.7% of schools made sure that all their cafeteria staff got basic food safety training before they were allowed to prepare or serve food. 86% sounds okay until you consider that 14% aren’t required to have food safety training – a big deal if that’s your school.

Also lame is that while 96.8% of elementary schools provided regularly scheduled recess for students, that figure only includes 147 minutes per week OR 2.5 hours a week. Your child is at school for an average of 40 hours per week – with 2.5 hours of physical recess. Whatever damage school lunches do, the schools aren’t making up for it via exercise. Physical education is encouraged but not followed through. For example, only 3.8% of elementary schools, 7.9% of middle schools and 2.1% of high schools provided daily physical education for all students. How many students aren’t getting this at all?


  • Currently school lunches (pdf) must meet 1995 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend that “No more than 30 percent of an individual’s calories come from fat, and less than 10 percent from saturated fat. Regulations also establish a standard for school lunches to provide one‐third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories.” States and districts can set their own regulations about how food is prepared and what food is bought.
  • Most schools have zero regulations on stuff like high fructose corn syrup or sugar limits.
  • The USDA regulates the content of school breakfasts and lunches to ensure it meets good nutritional standards, which in itself is a laugh-worthy statement, but there is zero regulation of the foods sold in other venues in schools such as vending machines and snack bars.
  • Highly processed foods are typically served in many, if not most, school lunchrooms. Even the typical grilled cheese served in schools is overly processed, containing as many as 30 ingredients PLUS high fructose corn syrup.
  • More than 2/3 of public schools lunches exceed recommended limits for fat content. In fact check out how much fat is in these five worst school lunches.
  • Sodium is out of control. One recent study showed that of six sample lunches ALL six exceeded the USDA recommended 500 milligrams of sodium and four of contained more than 1,000 milligrams of sodium.
  • According to the Massachusetts Public Health Association, between 56% and 85% of children in school consume at least one soft drink daily.
  • Flavored milk, a pet peeve of the awesome Jamie Oliver of Food Revolution contains 4 added teaspoons of sugar, which adds up to 7 total teaspoons of sugar per serving. If your kid drinks two cartons of flavored milk per day at school that’s like 16 oz of soda pop. PS if you missed Food Revolution I highly suggest you hunt down the entire series and watch it. I rarely recommend TV shows, but if you’ve got kids in public school, you can’t afford to miss this show.
  • School lunches are so unhealthy that even the military is sticking its nose in the ring, saying that school lunches may even be a national security threat. Normally I’m not on board with the military, but hey, when they’re right, they’re right.

Really, I could have written 100 posts JUST on the unhealthy aspects of school food. There’s a ton of research out there if you choose to look. All in all, school lunches mostly suck and our kids are the ones who suffer the health consequences. In fact, the Daily Green notes that the nutrition standards of school lunches haven’t been updated for over 30 years!


According to one USA TODAY investigation, “The government has provided the nation’s schools with millions of pounds of beef and chicken that wouldn’t meet the quality or safety standards of many fast-food restaurants.

In fact, the USA Today investigation notes that McDonald’s, Burger King and Costco have far more rigorous meat checks for bacteria and dangerous pathogens than most schools while Jack in the Box has bacteria standards that are up to 10 times more stringent than what the USDA sets for school beef. Chickens that KFC and The Campbell Soup Company refuse to use are served to children in schools. This low quality meat is donated by the USDA to almost every school district in the country and served to 31 million students a day, a fact that’s especially concerning since kids are more prone to food related illnesses.

In response to outcry created by the USA Today report, among many other reports, the USDA decided to update their meat purchasing requirements. Last month, the final new standards for ground beef purchased by the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) for the National School Lunch Program were released. According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, there’s now a zero tolerance for E. coli and Salmonella, and the new AMS standards also tighten microbiological testing protocols; tighten the microbiological upper specification and critical limits; increase microbiological sampling frequency for finished products to every 15 minutes; and institute additional rejection criteria for source trimmings used to manufacture AMS purchased ground beef.

Will the USDA follow through with these new meat safety guidelines? Maybe? It’s not like they haven’t slacked in the past though.


It’s ironic that schools in particular serve up gross, unhealthy food, because the whole goal of most schools is to educate. However, educating becomes an issue when kids have poor nutrition.

  • In one study, students who experienced malnutrition that was too slight for even clinical signs to be evident, still had compromised intelligence and academic performance.
  • The American School Food Service Association notes that students with the lowest amount of protein in their diet had the lowest achievement scores.
  • Iron deficiency anemia, according to the National Education Association, leads to shortened attention span, irritability, fatigue, and difficulty with concentration. The result: kids with iron deficient diets perform worse on vocabulary, reading, and other tests.
  • A study in Pediatrics, notes that children from food-insufficient families have significantly lower math scores and are more likely than other kids to be held back a grade – actual nutritious school lunches could help.
  • According to study after study, kids who eat a healthy breakfast have better school performance and reduced absenteeism and tardiness, better behavioral and emotional functioning, better grades in math and reading, lower anxiety, less hyperactivity and less depression. Healthy school breakfasts, however, are very rare.

What your child is worth


Funding is the biggest factor at play when it comes to unhealthy school lunches. In case you think I’m wrong check out what happened in Albuquerque, where I used to live – when kids’ parents owed too much in school lunch fees, the schools started handing out cold cheese sandwiches to the poor kids. Nice! You know the system rocks when school districts cut off hot food to children in debt.

Up until now roughly $1 has been spent per kid per meal in the United States. Congress was discussing changes to the Child Nutrition Act all year and President Barack Obama even asked for an additional $1 billion in funding specifically for school lunches, although that would only bring the total spent per kid up to a paltry $1.30!

You can see how much money the Federal Government provides States for lunches, afterschool snacks and breakfasts served to children participating in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs by visiting the USDA.

The lame part is that school lunch issues (including budget), are not considered as important as other issues, and it keeps getting pushed back. Finally this month, Senate passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The act offers up an additional $4.5 billion to federal child nutrition programs, one of which includes the National School Lunch program. Still there are problems. For example, the bill expires on September 30th and the funding may be lost. Seriously? It takes a year+ to pass rules for better, healthier lunches. That’s a disgrace.

Keep in mind that bad school lunches aren’t new news. Back in 2003 and even before that, people were ranting over lunch, yet we still haven’t seen any significant changes. Read the entire Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids bill (pdf).


Beyond the basic health issues related to school lunches, do we really want kids who think a tray of uncreative, tannish brown lumpy stuff is food? Kids are learning all the time, and the fact that their school plates are void of beautiful fresh food means they’re less likely to become engaged in a life long love of healthy eats.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the following links and seriously ask yourself if you’d eat this slop. It’s no wonder so much food is tossed out in the schools. Then ask yourself if this is what you want your child’s idea of real food to look like…

  • OMG! – trust me, I don’t use the canned OMG phrase lightly.
  • Last year an Illinois teacher vowed last year to eat exactly what her students eat – school lunches – for the whole of 2010 and she blogs about it. Her blog, Fed Up With Lunch, is awesome but super visually unappealing – she takes pictures of most of the lunches.
  • A pictorial journey though 30 school lunches of the world – many USA. You can’t always tell what the food is exactly in the USA pictures – that’s scary.

FOR NOW: I’d pack your kids a lunch if you can. A simple inexpensive packed lunch is way healthier than what the schools are serving up. Even the cheapest lunches are going to be better than public school food.


Honestly, I think all employees of the USDA involved with the school lunch program, along with all members of the government should be forced to eat exactly what kids are served in public schools every day until changes are made. Since I can’t legally force this, I’ll just have to offer you some grassroot solutions.


  • Ideas about how to help change your local school lunch programs.
  • How to create change on a national level.
  • Ideas about how to afford to pack healthy lunches on a budget.

What are your kids eating at school?

[Disgusting School Lunch image via Flickr user Jeff Sandquist; Typical School Lunch images via Flickr user DOliphant]

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Share this article

  • Pinterest
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • StumbleUpon
  • Google Plus
  • LinkedIn
  • Print


  1. Jane Doe says

    Here’s an idea — instead of bashing all school lunches and lumping them all together as “bad” and “unhealthy” and to avoid school lunch at all costs, why not encourage your readers to actually talk to your school Child Nutrition office and see what they serve.

    My child goes to a large urban, very poor school district and the lunches there are great. Whole grain pizza crusts and breads, low fat beef and cheeses, nothing fried — not even a fryer in any kitchens, a fresh fruit AND fresh raw vegetable served everyday (and that is if they choose not to go through the salad bar line instead), reduced sugar chocolate milk with no HFCS, etc.

    People need to be informed and take action if they don’t like what they see — not bury their head in the sand and pack lunches for 12 years. What about the kids who can’t pack their lunches and have to eat school lunch because it is their only meal of the day?

  2. Jennifer says

    Here’s why I bash school lunches – the vast majority of schools have poor school lunches. Studies show this to be true. Did you see the stats above? Those are based nationwide – the nationwide stats on school lunches suck big time. Although not all schools have a poor lunch, which is why I said, “It’s not across the board.”

    Many of my son’s pals and other kids I know go to public school and they tell me what’s going on – the school lunches are branded, taste gross, high fat and are overall so bad many of these kids skip eating altogether. My friend’s daughter says nothing is properly labeled, (i.e. dressing) and the only edible thing is pizza. She says she’d like a salad, but the ones they offer are old, browish and void of anything but iceberg. She refuses to eat 80% of the time and it’s terrible that her parents and other parents aren’t at the school making a HUGE scene.

    Also, I will be encouraging parents to talk to their school nutrition offices and visit their schools – which is why at the end of the post I said I’d be back with tips about how to change the school lunch program – I know parents are smart enough to know this is on as needed basis.

    Lastly, I get that some parents can’t afford a packed lunch, which is why I one, advocate for better school lunches regardless of what my own son eats. I don’t want any kid eating a bad lunch. Two, again, I said I’d be back with tips about how people can afford packed lunches.

    People do need to be informed, I totally agree so I posted national stats about school lunches. And yes, making change happen is WAY better than packing a lunch because you have to, because lunches don’t just affect your child, but all children. That said, it takes a lot of work to change bad school lunch programs. UNTIL change can happen I do think parents should pack a lunch.

    It’s been 30 years since lunch standards were upgraded. In the early 2000s many advocacy organizations tried to create school lunch change and had little luck; 10 years later, here we sit with terrible school lunch stats still. Why would you serve a child slop while you wait for change to take place? Try to create change sure. Check out kids lunches – yes. But kids who go to schools who aren’t on board with changes yet shouldn’t have to suffer.

    All that said, I’m very glad your child attends a school with healthy school lunches – you’re very lucky and it’s a good model for other schools too – those that say they can’t pull it off. Obviously they can.

  3. says

    These stats are exactly why I formed my farm-to-school nonprofit organization, Real Food Alliance. Every time I read facts like this, my blood starts to boil! Thanks for reinvigorating my mission! :)

  4. joe verb says

    The meals you show in photos are no different than what I ate as a kid in the 80’s. I was not fat or unhealthy then or now. Your real complaint shouldn’t be the food it should be the lack of exercise. Kids not outside playing running. What ever happened to PE in school? Of course whatever happened to physical responsibility of the parent! It cost a lot less to send your kid with a sac lunch peanut butter and jelly, few cookies, hand full of chips than to pay for a school lunch!

  5. says

    it is disgusting and horrifyingand commpeltly horrible and is not healthy for anyone to eat people should learn to try harder and not get are children sick from the disgusting school lunches and breakfests!!!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *