Focus on nutrition and healthy foods has increased in recent years due to the emphasis on healthy living by healthcare professionals. This focus is especially strong in school cafeterias around the country. Providing healthy, whole foods to children in schools has been a hot topic among districts, administrators, and even politicians. While the goal seems easy, it can be difficult to utilize a small budget to serve an entire school nutritious and fresh food. The federal government has been making positive changes to help make this a reality, but schools are still needing to get creative to provide students this food – and get them to eat it!

Fresh Produce Piled on Market Stand

Nutrition Requirements in School Cafeterias

There have been positive changes in the federal requirements of nutrition provided to students in Kindergarten through 12th grade. The National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs were established to layout types and nutritiostandards of foods offered by school cafeterias. 

As recently as February 2019, the government has updated these requirements to align with dietary guidelines for Americans. These recent guideline improvements allow for flexibility in meal planning and add to the nutritional standards of food served. The most recent updates include some of these additions: 

  • Operators can permanently offer flavored, low-fat milk for people ages six and older 
  • Requires that half of the weekly grains offered must be whole-grain rich

Offer Versus Serve

Part of the requirements laid out by the government are offerings made by schools in their meal programs. The options can vary based on local availability and preference, but the serving sizes remain the same across the country. Servings are divided by age group due to the differences in nutritional needs for children of all ages. 

Did You Know? Students (at lunch) must pick at least three of the five components and one of the choices selected should be at least ½ cup serving of fruits and/or vegetables. – Offer Versus Serve, U.S. Department of Agriculture 

The goal of Offer versus Serve gives students some choice in what foods they want to eat while ensuring that they choose something healthy. Another goal is to reduce food waste in school meal programs by allowing students to decline food that they don’t want to eat.

Graphic - Offer Versus Serve

According to OVS, school lunches must consist of these components.

  1. Fruits
  2. Vegetables
  3. Grains
  4. Meats/Meat Alternatives
  5. Fluid Milk

Trends in School Cafeterias 

School administrators and professionals are working to improve meal programs in their districts. They are helping to pilot programs that provide nutritious meals in a variety of ways, especially cooked-from-scratch and to-go. Cafeterias have trouble budgeting for these new meal programs and in getting children to make healthier choices. Staff and administrators are helping to bridge the gap between the initial budget change and the long-term benefits of offering healthy, fresh food in schools. 

“The Pew Charitable Trusts surveyed 489 school nutrition managers nationwide and found that 6 in 10 still face obstacles related to the updated federal requirements. But more than half of those surveyed saw a rise in revenue. Other studies have shown that children are eating more fruits and vegetables under the new guidelines”. – Rodney Taylor in Washington Post 

Creative changes in cafeterias can help to maximize budgets while serving healthy options to students. 

Salad Bars and Local Farms 

Districts are seeing that salad bars are a beneficial way to introduce more fruits and vegetables to school children. Food bars allow students to decide what goes on their plate which helps to reduce food waste. It can also allow for creative presentation of produce, encouraging healthier eating.  

Local produce, dairy, and meats are becoming popular in districts as well. This allows a school to work with local farms to provide fresh and often less expensive food to serve. Children are being educated on local farming while also eating healthier. Some programs include signs on the source of the food being served, showing students where their food comes from. Using local farms helps to demonstrate the flow of food from farm to table. 

Leveraging Buying Power 

Large urban districts can sometimes be short on budget to fund their individual food programs. Schools have been banding together to increase their leverage in buying healthy foods in the market. Combining resources can give everyone a better market price as well as develop relationships with local food sources. A school can benefit from this strategy when getting started in offering healthy and local-sourced foods, as it would require less money upfront than buying on their own. 

Free Meal Programs 

While free and assisted meals are not new in schools, many districts across the United States have begun offering meals outside of typical school hours. Companies like No Kid Hungry help provide meals outside of school to children that are hungry or underfed. They and other nonprofit organizations have seen the gap in nutrition for children in need during times like summer break. Students that rely on meals provided by their schools are sometimes going hungry during the summers. 

43% of low-income families say it’s harder to make ends meet during summer” – No Kid Hungry 

Other meal programs taking off are after school and breakfast meals. The goal with these programs is to provide nutritious meals to students that otherwise would go without. 

School Gardens 

Another solution for healthy eating popping up in schools across the country is a school garden. Programs like Growing Minds are helping educate students and staff about the benefits of local gardening and provides resources for establishing a school garden. A garden helps show students the relationship between food and consumer and provides an inexpensive way to serve fresh produce in cafeterias. 

Classroom gardens give students a chance to collaborate across their school and allow teachers to incorporate concepts into lesson plans. Many districts in the United States have a difficult time accessing fresh food to serve and school gardens can make a difference for them.

Fresh Peppers in Produce Stand

Layout and Serving Tips 

Cafeterias can be chaotic and difficult to run efficiently. There are plenty of ways to make a meal line go smoother and get children fed easier. Some school districts also struggle with encouraging students to make healthier decisions when selecting food. Simple changes to displays, buffets, and staff positioning can help with all these pain points.

Encourage Water Over Juice/Soda

Serve fruit-infused water or bottled water ready-to-grab to encourage the choice over fruit juices and soda. Switching a sugar drink for water is an easy healthy decision to make!

Package Produce Offerings

Package the daily fruit and vegetable offerings in grab-and-go containers to make it easier for children to get their servings. Mix up the combinations to give students the choice of produce.

Healthy Checkout Options

Put healthy options at the checkout like fresh fruit or healthy packaged snacks. Putting these items in reach instead of chips and candy encourage a healthy choice.

Assist in Selection

A staff member can stand at the salad bar and make recommendations to younger students selecting what goes on their plate. This keeps the decision with the student but offers help in making the choice. A helper can also speed up the line when someone is stuck on their choices.

Model Plate

Display a model plate at the front of the lunch line or salad bar to demonstrate some healthy recommendations. A model plate helps give inspiration to students that may not know what to choose.

More on School Cafeterias 

Are you interested in more information on outfitting and operating the ideal school kitchen? Read these articles in our Resource Center.