School Meals: Innovative and Impactful

As a registered dietitian and mom, I hear too often how school meals are processed, unhealthy and contribute to the childhood obesity epidemic. This statement, however, couldn’t be further from the truth. School meals have evolved into innovative solutions that help fuel our students’ minds with the nutrients they need to learn while reducing the hunger gap in schools.

The National School Lunch and National School Breakfast Program provide children with both affordable and nutritious meals during the school year. In 2018, schools served more than 4.8 billion lunches and 2.4 million breakfasts to children across the nation. A 2018 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that eating school meals daily is actually associated with overall healthier dietary intakes. Plus, educators report school meals combat the lack of energy, poor academic performance and inability to concentrate associated with hunger in the classroom.

Childhood Hunger in America

According to No Kid Hungry, more than 12 million children in the U.S. live in food insecure homes, and many only receive meals at school. School meal programs work hard to close the gap of childhood hunger – but the reality is, many still aren’t getting breakfast and the nutrition they need due to the way meals are served in schools. A school breakfast and/or lunch could be their only opportunity to get the vital nutrients they need for the day.  

If you spend any time with a child nutrition director, school nutrition staff or cafeteria staff you’ll know that they truly enjoy feeding kids, and that is why many districts are making changes to their meal production and services in an effort to feed more. Many schools across the country are working to implement new and innovative ways to make school meals more appealing to students – from grab-n-go carts placed in the hallway outside of class, to breakfast in the classroom, to second-chance breakfast later in the morning. These modifications not only change the perception of school meals, but also further evolve them beyond the cafeteria – making school meals more convenient for students to access.

Dairy MAX Helps Schools Remain Innovative

Schools across the country are finding new ways to feed their students. With the help of our dairy farm families, one Colorado school district is working to implement grab-n-go breakfast carts in more than 11 schools, with a long-term goal of also providing nutritious grab-n-go lunches – like salads, sandwiches and wraps. Our grant also helped a district in Dallas implement breakfast in the classroom, which now feeds over 98,000 students. Another Texas district, through Fuel Up to Play 60, in San Antonio has successfully implemented breakfast in the classroom across all 20 of its elementary schools and grab-n-go carts across their secondary schools.

Many schools within the Dairy MAX territory are also looking for ways to blend innovation and healthy foods. Dairy-inclusive offerings, such as yogurt smoothies, are becoming a part of school meals. Additionally, USDA guidance also allows coffee bars in high schools, which in turn keeps kids on campus and more likely to eat school meals.

Even if your child eats at home, by supporting school meals and nutrition departments, you’re helping support learning and nutritional well-being for every student at the school – including your own. With your support and our Dairy MAX and Fuel Up to Play 60 resources, schools can continue to innovate school meals to close the hunger gap for good.

Learn more about the evolution of school meals.

By Melissa Brunk, RDN, CLC

Melissa is a registered dietitian and certified lactation counselor who grew up showing farm animals in 4-H. She has a deep appreciation for everything that goes in to food production and is passionate about ensuring no child goes hungry. Learn more about Melissa.