The National School Lunch Program

In 1946, President Truman signed the National School Lunch Act, which created the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and was response to claims that many American men had been disqualified for World War II military service because of nutrition-related diseases. In the 1960s, the program expanded to include school food breakfast, a milk program and summer food service.

However, in 1981, the Reagan administration cut $1.5 billion from the NSLP resulting in lower nutritional standards and increased privatization. Eventually, in 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed, which mandated stronger school and early child care nutrition standards.

School Food Today

Today, the NSLP funds low-cost or free school lunches to children in more than 101,000 institutions, most of which are public or non-profit private schools. Participating schools are required to serve lunches that meet minimum nutrition requirements set by the government. Nearly 31 million school kids are served school lunch every day, and children consume up to 50% of their daily calories at school.

As a part of COVID-19 assistance passed by Congress, the USDA reimbursed school districts nationwide for free meals to all students, regardless of income, for the 2021-22 school year. But Congress did not continue the funding this school year. So, some states like California and Maine have since passed universal free school meal programs, but most have not. In those states, eligible families must apply to receive free or reduced-price meals for the current school year.

Every Cent Counts

The NSLP reimbursement rates for the current school year of 2022-2023 are $4.33 per free meal and $3.93 per reduced meal. Unfortunately, this reimbursement isn’t just used to purchase food. It needs to cover the total school lunch service cost, which also includes labor, administrative labor, supplies, maintenance, transportation and more. On average, only around 45% of reimbursement costs go towards food leaving school food directors and other decision-makers in school districts with the difficult task of balancing the need and desire for appetizing, nutritious food with the realities of razor-thin budgets.

It’s not just a lack of funding that is stalling progress towards school lunches being made from fresh, wholesome ingredients. Roadblocks for school districts also include the availability of skilled labor, training costs, fear of non-compliance, financial literacy, supply chain issues, and more.

So, where does this leave us? And what can we do?

Our Evolving Mission

Whole Kids Foundation launched in 2011 with the mission to improve children’s nutrition by connecting kids to real food. Through Salad Bar Grants, Garden Grants, Bee Grants and the Healthy Teachers Program, we have seen firsthand how schools and empowered educators are successfully advancing access to healthy food choices and building a direct connection between kids and the roots of their food.

However, we’ve spent more than a decade learning the business of school food. What we’ve found is that the best way to wholly transform the way students eat and think about food is by helping schools move from processed foods to scratch cooking (when schools cook their own meals made with fresh ingredients).

So, our work has evolved. Today, in addition to our original grant programs, Whole Kids Foundation is facilitating permanent systemic changes in school food to ensure that every meal at school can offer the best nutrition possible.

Kim Herrington, our Programs and Finance Senior Director explains, “Whole Kids Foundation acts as a catalyst by investing in partnerships and opportunities that set the stage for deep, lasting change. Our transformational school food is not about changing just one thing. It is changing everything — school districts’ entire food programs. Our salad bar, school gardens, educational beehives grants and Healthy Teachers Program then work in tandem to support these much larger transformations.” Learn more about our approach to school food transformation.

Get Schools Cooking Grant Program

We partnered with Chef Ann Foundation for the Get Schools Cooking Grant Program, which supports public K-12 school districts in the U.S. working to transform their food service programs from processed foods to scratch-cooked meals. The comprehensive, multi-year program addresses many of the current barriers to healthier school food by focusing on five key areas of school food operations: food, finance, facilities, human resources and marketing. Since 2016, 20 school districts have participated and received a consultation and monetary grant valued at $250,000.

Among the most recent recipients from the 2019 cohort is Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools based in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. Chef Ann Foundation personnel who specialize in school food operation recently completed a multi-day on-site assessment to observe the district’s current practices and gather critical operational data. An assessment report followed providing recommendations ranging from menu edits and specific food prep procedures to best hiring practices to food service uniforms. Strategic planning and technical assistance will follow so that Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools have the tools and support they need to be successful.

There’s More…

In addition to the Get Schools Cooking Grant Program, Whole Kids Foundation is also supporting these partnerships and opportunities that work to advance school food nutrition, including:

  • CIA Healthy Kids Collaborative is designed to both accelerate innovation and deepen technical and professional expertise in K-12 school food. It is comprised of school nutrition leaders from around the country, including food service directors, chefs, food service management companies and expert school nutrition consultants.
  • Healthy Pathway Fellowship Program aims to develop the next generation of diverse leaders in scratch-cook school food operations that can support a sustainable program and drive school food reform.
  • Parent Advocacy Toolkit features tools and resources designed to guide parents advocating for healthier school food in their communities.
  • ScratchWorks is a trade-driven collective of school food professionals and nonprofit organizations committed to advance scratch cooking in schools.

National Efforts for a Healthier Future

Last month, the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health took place — the first in 50 years. Representatives from the public and private sectors came together around a coordinated $8 billion strategy to address food insecurity, nutrition and health. Plans include increasing access to free and nourishing school meals. Notably, the Biden administration plans to work with Congress to expand access to healthy, free school meals for 9 million more children by 2032.

Get Involved

Interested in sparking meaningful changes to school food in your community today? Check out the Parent Advocacy Toolkit and learn more about the Get Schools Cooking Grant. The next application window opens late summer of 2023.