Are schools putting the brakes on making meals healthier for kids? Investigate your local district

Published on
September 13, 2019

If we knew a good way to save the lives of children in school, we would do it, right? 

We read about school shootings and feel helpless or angry. When we read about how many children are overweight and obese in the United States, though, we don’t react the same way. And yet, reducing illness and death related to poor diets would save more lives in the U.S. than even a total ban on gun sales.

One of the ways we as a society have collectively moved toward healthier eating for kids is by agreeing – with the exception of food industry lobbyists – on what kids should be served in school meals. There have been two major pieces of legislation that have nudged schools in the right direction. The 1966 Child Nutrition Act and the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Both pieces of legislation were fought over and flawed, and multiple scientific papers have been written about their creation, implementation, and impact. A recent case study worth reading was published in Nutrition Today

What we do know for certain is that, over time, these two laws have led to healthier foods being offered at schools and to kids eating more fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods. At the same time, laws often have loopholes. As with other organizations with multiple constituencies to please and budgets to balance, some school districts have been leaders in pushing for healthy foods and others have been laggards.

As a journalist, you can find out whether schools near you are making even a bare minimum effort to encourage better eating among students. And the opportunity right now is quite good. 


The Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act set a fairly high bar for what schools should try to achieve in improving the intake of healthy foods. Two key areas codified in the legislation are also two of the areas of diet that have the biggest impact on health:

  1. Whole grains: Diets low in whole grains were recently cited in a study published in the Lancet as the top driver of diet-related health loss, robbing people of 85 million years of healthy life through chronic diseases and premature death.

  2. The same study found that diets high in sodium were the second biggest risk factor for poor health. Worldwide, diets high in sodium were tied to more than 70 million lost years of healthy life. (Disclosure: the lead author of the Lancet study, Ashkan Afshin, works just a few offices away from me at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, and I tend to think he’s a darn good scientist.)

Despite the evidence, parts of the food industry have fought the food standards from the beginning and continue to fight it. (This site wrote some great posts about the impact of the law and the hype around the law.) Also, some districts have complained that they could not meet the new standards as cost-effectively as they could the earlier, less healthy rules. Others complained that kids were tossing the healthier fare in trash cans. So, gradually, the tough rules have become softer, including the decision in 2017 by the agency that oversees school food policy to allow districts to bypass the rules on whole grains and sodium. 

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the co-author of the Nutrition Today case study, said in a statement published by the center:

Ninety percent of American kids eat too much sodium every day. Schools have been moving in the right direction, so it makes no sense to freeze that progress in its tracks and allow dangerously high levels of salt in school lunch.

What should you do as a reporter?

Call your district and see if the district as a whole has committed to the higher standard. And which schools inside the district are meeting the standard. We know that districts in a wide variety of social and economic contexts can meet the standards, as evidenced by the high percentage of schools that quickly adopted the new rules. Within five years of the new law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 90% of schools were meeting the new nutrition standards. (Incentives are at play: Schools get more money if they follow the tougher rules.) Schools that are opting out are very likely making a short-term decision that could have long term health consequences for kids.

If schools are saying that they can’t meet the sodium and whole grain guidelines because of budget concerns, then look for nearby districts that are meeting the standard. Find out what their overall revenues and spending are. What percentage of that spending is on food programs? A good rule of thumb is around 4%, according to the American Association of School Administrators, which has put together a nice breakdown of what goes into a school budget

That’s a story that will matter to parents, regardless of how well or poorly a given district is doing — it’s news either way. And you can make your stories even stronger by explaining how diet is linked to a host of chronic diseases, and how eating patterns established early in life can have lifelong consequences.

Don’t let budget excuses paper over bad long-term planning for a healthier future.