What’s for (school) lunch?

What kind of meal does $1 buy?

The government provides $2.68 for the kids qualifying for a free lunch, $2.28 for a reduced price lunch, and $0.25 cents for all other kids. That sum includes the overhead and facility costs associated with the meal, which leaves just $1—or less—for the food itself. Clearly not enough money to fund from-scratch cooking or quality fresh produce.

A study in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association, based on a sample of almost 400 public schools and about 2,300 students, grades 1 to 12 looked at what’s served and what kids actually eat while in the school cafeteria for lunch.

It is a worrying picture.

Here’s the menu:

  • Milk: Milk is offered in practically all schools—the majority of milk offered is flavored (i.e. sweetened).
  • Fruit: 94 percent of schools offered fruit or fruit juices but only 50 percent of it is fresh fruit–the rest is canned fruit or fruit juice.
  • Vegetables: This study considers starchy vegetables such as white potatoes a vegetable. By that classification, 96 percent of kids had a vegetable offering at lunch. But note that while 45 percent of high schools offered French fries (!) only 39 percent of schools offered lettuce salad, only 29 percent offered orange or dark green vegetables, and only 10 percent offered legumes.
  • Grains/bread: The vast majority of grain products (bread, rolls, bagels, crackers etc.) were made of refined white flour. Only 5 percent of grain offering was whole wheat.
  • Combination entrée: The most commonly offered combination entrée depended on age; in elementary school, 28 percent of combination entrees were peanut butter sandwiches, followed by meat sandwiches; in middle school the most commonly offered combination entree was pizza with meat, followed by cheeseburgers and sandwiches with breaded meat or poultry.
  • Dessert: Those were offered in 47 percent of high schools, 41 percent of middle schools and 37 percent of elementary school. The leading deserts were cookies, cakes and brownies.


This is what the kids actually ate for school lunch:

  • Milk: 75 percent of kids drank milk, mostly 1 percent fat, and mostly flavored.
  • Fruit: Forty-five percent of kids ate some fruit; most of the fruit eaten was canned. Only 16 percent of kids overall had fresh fruit, and among high school kids it was only 8 percent.
  • Vegetables: Fifty-one percent of kids overall had some kind of vegetable, but that includes French fries. Lettuce salads were eaten by 6 percent of kids, orange or dark green vegetables were eaten by 6 percent, and legumes by 2 percent. French fries were eaten by 34 percent of high school kids!
  • Grains/bread: 34 percent of kids had grain products. Only 1 percent of grain products eaten were whole wheat.
  • Combination entrée: 75 percent of kids selected these entrees, the most popular of which were pizza, sandwiches with breaded meat, fish or poultry, hamburgers or hot dogs.
  • Dessert: 38 percent of kids had dessert, mostly consisting of cookies cake and brownies or candy.


In assessing the quality of the school meals and the school food environment, the study authors compare the school food to the recommendations set by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. By these standards:

  • The school lunch menu meets the standards for key nutrients such as protein, vitamins and minerals.
  • The majority of lunches exceeded the recommendations for total fat (in over 80 percent of schools) and saturated fat (in 72 percent of schools)
  • Only 6 percent of schools met the standards for all nutrients
  • Very few schools offered lunch that was adequate in fiber.
  • Practically all school lunches contained too much salt.


That’s the analytical take of the findings. I’ll offer a more practical view of the data in tomorrow’s post.

I’d love to hear your analysis.

Published on: February 16, 2010
About the Author
Photo of Ayala Laufer-Cahana MD

Dr. Ayala is a physician (Pediatrics and Medical Genetics), entrepreneur, artist, and mother of 3 school age active kids. Dr. Ayala’s main interests are preventive health care and nutrition. She is a serious home cook and strongly believes that eating healthy and enjoying good food go hand in hand.

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