Healthier U.S. School Lunches: More Fruits and Vegetables

Policy Change

In January 2012, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released new federal regulations “Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs,” to align school meals with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for America. The new nutrition standards are comprehensive and require schools to:

  • increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat milk in school meals;
  • reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat, and trans-fat in meals;
  • meet the nutrition needs of school children within their calorie requirements.

The new nutrition standards are based on recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences.

This policy change is very significant for public health. First, school meals had not been updated for more than 15 years and were not consistent with current nutrition science. Second, more than 32 million school children eat lunch every day at school in the U.S. Therefore, healthier school meals have the potential to improve the nutrition and health of 32 million American children, helping them establish healthier eating habit for life.

More Fruits and Vegetables in School Lunch

One of the primary objectives of the new school lunch standards was to increase children’s fruit and vegetable (F&V) consumption, a key recommendation of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for America. In the U.S., the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is intended to nourish children and help them develop healthy eating habits that will reduce their risk of obesity and other chronic diseases. Specifically for F&V, the new school lunch standards are:

  • Double the amount of F&V served every day.
  • Require both a fruit and a vegetable be served every day.
  • Require that students select at least ½ cup of the fruit or vegetable as part of their meal.
  • Require that a colorful – dark green, red, and orange – variety of vegetables be served every week.
  • Encourage schools to use salad bars to enhance the variety of vegetables.
  • Fruit can be fresh; canned in fruit juice, water or light syrup; frozen without added sugar; or dried. Schools should offer fresh fruit whenever possible.
  • Vegetables can be fresh, frozen or canned.
  • Schools may offer 100% juice, but no more than half of the fruit per-meal may be juice.
  • Require ¾ cup-1 cup of vegetables and ½ cup-1 cup of fruit to be served every day, based on age/grade groups K-5, 6-8 and 9-12.


All 101,000 U.S. schools participating in the NSLP were required to implement the new nutrition standards by the beginning of the 2012-13 school year. The increase in whole grains and reduction in sodium is phased-in over two and ten years, respectively.

Since 2005, USDA has encouraged schools to make school meals healthier. Prior to the federal policy regulation going into effect in 2012, many schools nationwide made incremental improvements such as serving more fresh F&V, whole grains and less processed foods, salt and fat. However, other schools will require more time, training and technical assistance to meet new school lunch standards and promote healthier foods to students.

More Funding for Healthier School Meals

Beginning October 2012 schools that meet the new nutrition standards will receive an additional $.06 per lunch to cover costs related to implementing healthier school lunches.

Increasing Kids Fruit and Vegetable Consumption

Fresh produce is the way for schools to deliver on taste, flavor, color, variety – elements critical to encouraging kids to eat more F&V. Serving more fresh produce has also become a tangible example of a school’s commitment to wellness. Salad bars, also growing in popularity, are one of the most effective ways for schools to meet the new F&V standards that emphasize variety, color and behavior change. And, students are responding positively especially when they can choose for themselves what F&V they want to eat. Schools offering a wide variety of F&V every day enhances the opportunity for students to “make ½ their plate F&V,” a key message of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines. A key goal of the new school lunch standards is to increase children’s F&V consumption and help them develop healthier eating habits. Future research will determine the success of this very comprehensive national policy change, but in the meantime, increasing children’s access to fresh F&V every day at school is already making a big difference!