Note: This article primarily discusses the food service programs available in the United States. While individual provinces offer subsidized food programs on a limited basis, Canada is one of the few developed countries in the world that does not have a national school food program. Parliament pledged to begin a nationwide program last year, but no money has yet been allocated (Ruetz and Kirk).
When it comes to ensuring the physical health of students, schools can play a major role by influencing what food students eat. Hot lunch programs, nutritional education in science or health classes, and even community gardens can all help schools encourage healthy eating habits for students. The US government realized this all the way back in 1946. That summer, President Harry S. Truman enacted the National School Lunch Act, which set in place funding and guidelines for its use in providing affordable, healthy lunch to students at K–12 schools (Woolley and Peters). These National School Lunch Programs (NSLP) provide healthy, balanced lunches (and often breakfasts) daily to almost thirty million students around the country, and the cost to schools is partially subsidized by the government. Perhaps most beneficially, schools can also provide these meals to low-income students at no cost or for a lower price (known as “free and reduced lunch”), ensuring that even the most vulnerable students are getting one or two square meals a day (“National School Lunch Program”).
NSLP are available to both public and private schools, but they are not often found at many Christian schools. Christian schools may choose not to participate for many reasons. The programs require schools to follow many rules and keep careful records—this may seem daunting to small schools without extra staff or resources. Perhaps size also plays a role—a program like this may not seem efficient or necessary for a school with just two hundred students. Additionally, many Christian schools are built without any sort of large kitchen or cafeteria space—students eat in their classrooms or even in the hallways.
However, NSLP provide many benefits and can help ensure that every student has access to nutritious food every day at school. Christian schools would do well to consider these programs, especially as their populations continue to diversify socioeconomically thanks to increased scholarship programs. To help provide some basic info about how NSLP work and to get some advice about how small schools might get involved, the Christian Educators Journal talked to Nancy Michaels, a school food service expert who has worked for over twenty years advising schools—particularly Christian ones—in the West Michigan area. She has consulted for or run programs at Holland Christian, Grand Haven Christian, Grand Haven Public, Allendale Christian, Grand Rapids Christian, Forest Hills Public, Ada Christian, Living Stones Academy, and Jenison Christian.
Programs Have Nutrition Requirements to Ensure Healthy Meals
One major benefit of NSLP is that they set requirements for what kind of food is served—this isn’t just the slice of pizza or “mystery meat” you see kids eating at school in movies or on television shows. Along with meeting particular calorie requirements (flexible daily but totaled at the end of each week), Michaels says, “We have to meet certain vegetable requirements. A certain amount of legumes, red/gold vegetables, green leafy—there’s all sorts of requirements that we have to meet.” Lunches must also include all whole grains, a fruit option, and milk that is 1 percent or lower. It can be challenging to get students to eat fruits and vegetables, Michaels says, “because we all want to have french fries every day.” She combats this by advertising the food to students, being careful to word meal descriptions in a way that’s appealing. “I really market the menu,” she says. “I want the kids to choose the menu.” One other thing to consider when serving lunch to a whole student body is food allergies. Michaels stresses that kitchens have a lot of flexibility in what they can serve and how they can adapt for students with documented allergies. Their motto is “I can work with you on that.”
“National School Lunch Program.” USDA, October 1, 2020, https://www.fns.usda.gov/nslp/nslp-fact-sheet.
Abby Zwart teaches English and coaches forensics at Grand Rapids Christian High School and is the co-editor of the CEJ.