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The Physicians Committee

School Lunches: Some Pass, Others Need Improvement

Students aren’t the only ones being graded in school these days. PCRM has released its fifth School Lunch Report Card, which grades the nation’s major school districts on the healthfulness of the food they serve and also on how well they are promoting the benefits of healthy eating to students.

girl with school lunchBecause the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) plays such an important role in developing children’s eating habits, PCRM looked at how schools were faring in three areas: Obesity and Chronic Disease Prevention, Health Promotion and Nutrition Adequacy, and Nutrition Initiatives. Schools have a unique opportunity to help stop the growing childhood obesity epidemic and the wide range of health problems that come with it, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer, by introducing children to healthy vegetarian foods right from the start.

The NSLP was established in 1946 to provide nutritious free and low-cost meals to students each day. Its secondary purpose was to encourage the consumption of domestic agricultural commodities. Today, the program serves lunches to more than 28 million children each school day. Schools participating in the NSLP receive cash subsidies, donated commodities, and free bonus commodities in return for serving meals that meet federal nutrition requirements.

Unfortunately, a staggering 80 percent of schools do not meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrition requirements, which mandate that schools serve meals deriving less than 30 percent of calories from fat and less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat. This may be in part due to the conflict of interest in the commodity system, in which schools that are trying to serve nutritious meals also receive the USDA’s excess beef, pork, milk, and other high-fat products.

To score highly on PCRM’s report card, a school has to not only meet the USDA’s nutrition requirements, but also serve a vegan entrée daily, have available a variety of fresh or low-fat vegetables or fruits, serve a nondairy beverage daily, and offer innovative programs that encourage healthy eating habits, such as a school garden or a salad bar.  “Childhood obesity is a bigger threat to kids than the schoolyard bully, so lunchrooms must provide healthful, low-fat vegetarian fare,” PCRM nutritionist Dulcie Ward, R.D., said.

Twelve of the 18 schools surveyed earned a B- or higher, and Virginia's Fairfax County schools was named the most improved district since last year and was also the highest-scoring district. Fairfax made the grade by providing a rotating selection of vegan entrees daily and also offering a choice of two salads every day. Soymilk is also offered at à la carte prices. Nutrition education is an integral part of Fairfax County’s curricula from kindergarten through high school, with the school cafeteria serving as a hands-on laboratory for students.

The lowest-scoring school systems were Minneapolis Public Schools, Hancock County Schools (Mississippi), and Memphis City School District (Tennessee), with a D+, D-, and an F, respectively. All three schools had very limited vegetarian and vegan entrée options. When vegetarian options did appear on the menu, they often included cheese, which is high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Eliminating high-fat dairy products in the vegetarian entrées could help these districts increase their score, and adding soymilk or rice milk would be a further step in the right direction. Additionally, Lactaid milk (an enzymatically treated cow’s milk product) was the only alternative to dairy milk in the Memphis City School District, and it was available only with a doctor’s note. 

Despite the barriers to regularly serving vegetarian and vegan entrées, the schools surveyed have made improvements. “The biggest change our report found this year is in much greater availability of vegetarian and vegan options,” Ward said. Twelve districts served a vegan entrée at least once within two weeks, and nine had vegan items on the menu regularly. This year’s federally mandated wellness policies, which must include goals for nutrition education and physical fitness and nutrition guidelines for food sold on campus, is sure to guide schools even further in the right direction.

PCRM Online, September 2006

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