• By Deanna Segrave-Daly
  • In 2019
  • October 17, 2019

Be a School Food Champion! What You Can Do to Support Real School Food

by Amy Virus, MS, RD, LDN

As we celebrate National School Lunch Week, if you are tempted to make a snap judgment from reading a school’s on-line menu or what you see in the cafeterias, please read on.

School food is an easy target – it’s almost expected that the tired stereotype is right around the corner when someone talks about school food: “Do you remember the awful [fill in the blank] we used to have in school?” The stigma and negative perception of school food and the cafeteria experience amongst students and adults can negatively impact student participation today.

We serve real food in our schools. Gone are the days of mystery meat, sub-quality and preservative-laden foods. Do food quality issues happen when you serve 300 meals in 20 minutes? Sure, but our staff works hard to put together the best meals we can with the limitations of the school environments we are in.

School meal food is real, honest food. When a parent, teacher, advocacy group, or student may be unhappy about something involving their school food, they likely consider that you, as a dietitian, regardless of your specialty, have some knowledge, thoughts or answers. Many positive changes have happened in the K-12 world space to provide more nutritious and delicious meals to our students every day for the 180 days they are in school.

Whatever your dietetic specialty, here’s some information about the school meals program and what we are doing in our district that might shed some light on what is happening in your district:

  • School foodservice finances are required to be maintained separately from the general fund. This means that school food operates as a self-sustaining business. All food, staff, and expenses must be covered by the meal reimbursement and/or meal sales to students. If they don’t, they must be subsidized by the general fund and take away valuable resources needed in the classroom.
  • On average, schools have about $1.30 or ~45% of the reimbursement to assemble a 5-component lunch meal for reimbursement.  The rest of the reimbursement provided from the Federal Government covers staff salaries and benefits, equipment and indirect costs.
  •  If a child is paying the paid rate for a meal, the school is getting ~$.32 additional reimbursement and thus, must follow the federal rules that go along with accepting federal funds.
  •  Depending on where parents shop, you’ll be hard-pressed to pack a lunch that includes all components of a healthy meal (fruit, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and milk) for the average price of an elementary school lunch of $2.50. School meals are the real deal!
  • Our meals exceed the federal nutrition standards for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) which are based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. School meals are the ONE PLACE you can see the dietary guidelines in action. School lunches must include a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grain-rich products, and low-fat or non-fat milk, Additionally, they must stay within specific age-appropriate nutrient ranges for calories, saturated fat & sodium, and be free of artificial trans fats.
  • The current Federal Administration has recently allowed for rollbacks to the meal guidelines established in 2010. Philadelphia is standing strong in our commitment to serving wholesome and appealing meals.  We are abiding by the original standards including meals that utilize whole grain-rich products, reduce sodium, and use only fat-free flavored milk. Check with your district to find out what their plans are and encourage them to stand with the stricter standards.
  • The State of Pennsylvania is celebrating local food in schools during the month of October- Click here to learn more about farm to school and the PA Preferred program. Philadelphia is celebrating October 24th with a menu of all local foods to see our special menu click here.

So, what can you do to support school meal programs?

  • Encourage parents to support their schools’ breakfast and lunch programs by encouraging their children to participate. By doing so, you’re not only assuring students a balanced meal, but you’re also investing in the next generation to ensure they receive the same essential nutrition during the school day.
  • Encourage parents to focus on the meal and avoid the snack line.  School food programs need to break even to survive. If students aren’t going to eat the 5 component meal, they will likely spend money on snacks. Smart Snack guidelines are in place to help schools serve less “junk” but any snacks, even healthier options, take away from the more balanced 5 component meal. It’s also harder to make financial ends meet with only selling snacks. There is far greater revenue and nutrition quality with a 5 component meal. By eliminating snacks, schools can focus on the reimbursable meal and providing more rounded nutrition to their students, while helping their bottom line.
  • Support by understanding that not all schools or districts are equal. Did you read a story about how another school district in a different state is offering something shiny and new?  Do you want the same shiny and new thing in your district? Find out who is paying for it… Some districts have additional revenue streams from additional state or city revenue that allows for innovation. Ex- The State of Oregon provides an additional .25 per meal for local food, New York City receives supplemental revenue from the City for following stricter standards and Boston Public Schools have a private donor providing the funds needed to build new cafeteria’s in all of their schools.  Typically, if it sounds like it costs more, it does, and there are additional demands associated with these types of additional revenue streams. If you really want that new shiny thing- help the school find the funding to do it.
  • Support by advocating for additional revenue- NOT in the form of a grant. Some grants are a band-aid- they aren’t sustainable funding that brings upon sustainable change. They are a way for the legislature or a special interest group to funnel some money to projects but avoids the large investments needed long term. Most grants can’t be used to buy food, which is usually the biggest cost driver of the change that is being sought.  A grant may purchase the salad bar or breakfast cart but it doesn’t help with the increased labor costs or additional fruit and vegetable purchases that are needed to sustain the program.

There is only one of me, but there is a lot of us (dietitians). Help those of us in the K-12 space and the thousands of children that depend on school food by actively supporting both the concept and work of school food through the national school breakfast, lunch and At-Risk after school meal programs.

If you are asked, share a positive story about the changes being made in schools across the state, highlight the local food being served in the program or thank a parent or student for participating in the program.


Amy Virus, MS, RD, LDN is the Manager of Administrative and Support Services in the Division of Food Services for the School District of Philadelphia.