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School Meals: Meeting Youth Nutrition Needs

Boy holding plate of healthy food in cafeteriaSurvey says…schools are working to increase access to fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and reduce sodium content of school meals.

The number of schools using healthy practices to offer a variety of fruits and vegetables and reduce sodium in meals has increased significantly between the years 2000 to 2014. These changes are important because school meal programs are a major source of nutrition for many young people in the United States.

Specifically each day

  • More than 30 million students participate in the National School Lunch Program.
  • More than 13 million students participate in the School Breakfast Program.

Study Overview

CDC researchers analyzed school-level data from the 2000, 2006, and 2014 School Health Policies and Practices Study (SHPPS) to understand how schools were implementing 9 school nutrition services practices related to fruits, vegetables, whole grain, and sodium in school meals, and examine trends over time. Most of the respondents for the nutrition services questionnaire were food service managers and other school nutrition services staff.

Two girls at salad bar

Salad bars are one way to provide students with more fruit and vegetable options.

So how well did schools do on implementing the federal meal practices?

Overall, almost all (97%) schools were using at least 1 of the 9 practices and nearly half (48%) were using between 4-6 practices.

  • Almost all schools offered whole grains each day.
    • 97% at breakfast.
    • 94% at lunch.
  • Most schools offered a variety of fruits and vegetables for lunch each day.
    • 79% offered two or more different vegetables.
    • 78% offered two or more different fruits.
  • Almost 1 of 3 schools offered self-serve salad bars.
  • More than half of the schools that prepared food at the school tried to reduce salt content.
    • 54% used fresh or frozen vegetables instead of canned.
    • 52% used low salt, canned vegetables instead of regular canned.
    • 65% used other seasonings instead of salt.
    • 68% used low-salt recipes.

Between 2000 and 2014, the percentage of schools implementing five of these practices to offer more fruits and vegetables and reduce the sodium content of meals has increased significantly.

What else can schools do to provide healthier meals for students?