School lunch in the United States: from politics to field

americas_school_lunch_disaster-1280x960The evolution of “plethora diseases” in Europe follows a similar path to that of the United States, and the very strong influence of “the American diet” in the globalization of the food market naturally leads us to study their model. Few scientific studies have examined the comparison of European and American school lunch model, which could yet help explain the “French Paradox” if such a thing exists. Indeed, many studies suggest that feeding during childhood strongly influences the adult’s nutritional balance.

What is America’s school lunch policy?

American school catering systems are multiple and governed by different levels of regulation:

  • The Federal Government
  • The Federal States
  • School districts
  • Schools

In 2004, the US Congress has imposed on each district and school facility to define and implement a “Wellness Policy” before 2006. These policies should include education goals for nutrition, minimum nutritional standards, recommendations for food and beverage sale, outside of school food programs, and physical activity goals.

These “Wellness Policies” now exist, at least in theory, in all school districts in the United States.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has evaluated these programs in 2009. The average strength policy was then rated 35 on a scale of 0 to 100. Less than half of school districts had achieved effective implementation and evaluated the effectiveness of policies developed. The strongest criticisms were the lack of precision in the definition of the objectives and the means to achieve it, and the absence of project managers or project teams to follow the implementation of the policies. Finally, in the vast majority of cases, their funding was not provided for by the school district.

California is taking it seriously

Following this report, the State of California initiated a number of measures, including LEAN (Leaders Encouraging Activity and Nutrition), a program to bring together school feeding stakeholders including school districts, Board members, parents and students. Training courses for trainers, communication materials, examples of projects are available to actors on the website, as well as a hotline support.

Another interesting initiative is the “Team California for Healthy Kids”, with the aim of “make healthy choices the easy choices”. Very practical, this initiative gives advice to build a support team, to find the necessary funds to create “salad bars”, to establish partnerships with local farmers… In schools, concrete ideas about children’s nutritional education are numerous and varied: development of school gardens, cooking classes, nutrition courses emphasizing the seasonality of fruits and vegetables. The promotion of water as the main source of hydration is also reinforced, whether in class (science, health, nutrition, physical education in particular) or outside through poster campaigns. Milk is also mentioned as one of the beverages to be favored, and drinks recommended during the meals are water and milk.

What happens before 5 years old?

If one can welcome these initiatives, coming from a relatively exemplary State in terms of nutrition, one can still wonder about a certain number of practices in the Californian schools. First of all, these measures only concern public schools, accessible from the age of five. Before this age, children are cared for by private institutions that have no obligation to follow these programs. In most cases, it is a private company outside the school that offers a catering service in the form of lunch boxes.

Oven roasted herb chicken.jpegThey consist of a main dish and a fruit or cake. The main dish options usually include a source of protein and starchy foods, more rarely vegetables. These dishes are accompanied by natural milk, chocolate milk, water or apple juice and a seasonal fruit of your choice. Note: in some cases, a “wide” version is proposed. 

Sunbutter and jam sandwichSome options are American “classics” like sunflower butter sandwich (alternative to peanut butter to limit allergic hazards) with Jam, or granola (a mixture of whole grains aggregated in honey) with a yoghurt. These last two options therefore constitute, in the minds of restaurateurs, an acceptable main course for the lunch of a kindergarten child…

You can find at the end of the article some detailed examples of main courses offered by the private dining service of a California school. Note the detailed nutritional information accessible for all main dishes.

Snacks are so different from French’s “gouter”…

Another notable point of difference with France concerns the snacks. In particular, the composition and frequency of snacks. They are often made of savory biscuits (eg, Bretzels, Cheddar Bunny and Honey Bunny, certified “organic”) or extruded cereals (Golden Grahams). These biscuits, served with cream cheese and dried or fresh fruit, are offered in the morning and twice in the afternoon, as long as the child remains in study or extended care.

…As are the space and time considerations

In most private establishments, meals are taken in the classroom for the younger ones, or in the yard, few schools have a dedicated catering structure.

Finally, the time allowed for the lunch break is another point of difference with France: 45 minutes in younger class to 30 minutes for the oldest, including recess time. The importance of dedicating a longer time to the meal and of organizing real “lunch breaks” so that the students can relax before going to the canteen when it exists, was stressed by the Ecoliteracy organization who published a “rethinking school lunch” guide. We have not seen a federal or government initiative on this or a recent assessment of Wellness Policies, and it is doubtful whether the new US government will make it a priority…


Website Team California for Healthy Kids,

TCFHK nutrition resources:

Let’s Move! Child Care,

Californian lean project:

Rethinking School Lunch Guide

Evaluation of the School Lunch Initiative, University of Berkeley,

Mediocre Grades for School Wellness Policies Robert Wood Johnson Foundation,


The nutritional data detailed here concern the standard versions.

  • 250g, 406 kcal, 19g of lipids, including 6g of saturates, 38g of carbohydrate, 20g of protein, 3g of fiber, 451mg of Ca, 983mg of fat, and of mozarrella, tomato sauce and pesto sauce Of Na
  • Vegetable ravioli with whole rice and edamame – serving 293g, 406 kcal, 10g lipids including 1g saturated, 63g carbohydrates, 18g protein, 8g fiber,, 198mg Ca, 305mg Na
  • Homemade Meat Loaf with Potato Mashed Potatoes, Peas and Carrots – serving 331g, 451kcal, 24g fat, 11g saturated, 39g carbohydrate, 29g protein, 5g fiber, 93mg Ca, 753kg Mg Na
  • Spinach and chicken salad, cucumbers, carrots, pickled onions and tomatoes – serving 338g, 368kcal, 20g lipids including 2g of saturates, 28g of carbohydrates, 22g of protein, 5g of fiber, 119g of Ca, 352g of Na
  • Mediterranean waffle with falafels, with humus and yoghurt sauce tomato and cucumber – 326g, 621kcal serving, 27g lipids including 4g of saturates, 76g of carbohydrates, 20g of protein, 16g of fiber, 183mg of Ca, 1363mg of N / A
  • Cool combination of yoghurt and muffin with fresh fruit – portion of 331g, 462kcal, 8g of lipids including 1g of saturates, 89g of carbohydrates, 10g of protein, 3g of fiber, 178mg of Ca, 370mg of Na
  • Sunflower butter sandwich and jam – 145g, 491kcal serving, 23g lipids including 6g of saturates, 55g of carbohydrate, 19g of protein, 7g of fiber, 243g of Ca, 620mg of Na


  • Makis Californian with full rice, surimi, avocado and edamame – portion of 436g, 519 kcal, 24g of lipids including 3g of saturates, 66g of carbohydrates, 13g of protein, 9g of fiber, 41mg of Ca, 612mg of Na

Credits photos

America’s food lunch disaster, in Sharon, Vt., Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)(Credit: Toby Talbot)

Choicelunch, Oven roasted herb chicken and Sunbutter and Jam sandwich.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s