Since that first year in 1946, when President Harry Truman signed into law the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the federally assisted meal program has fed millions of children in both public and private school settings.
Not only was the program aimed at safeguarding the health of the many children whose families were still reeling from the Great Depression, it was also a solution for farmers that had surplus quantities of crop and provided employment for thousands of food handlers, truckers, and cooks.
Today, both free and paid school lunches still provide a necessary service for families. But the most important objective is to supply a safe and healthy source of nourishment for children of all socioeconomic backgrounds. With almost 100,000 schools and institutions serving school lunches at a rate of 20.2 million free lunches every year, the program has seen a reduction in number of full-price lunch participants.
A Decline in Full-Price Lunch Participation
The share of students buying school lunches (of those that don't quality for free or reduced price lunch programs) have steadily declined over the years. In 2008, 47 percent of students were buying their lunches at school. By 2014, this number had gone down to 37 percent. Subsequent drops and increases in students that participate in the school's paid lunch programs can be attributed to external factors. This includes the paid-meals participation drop that was experienced during the 2007-2009 recession.
Other factors that can influence the number of families who pay for their children to eat lunch at school can also be cited:
- Children don't prefer the food items on the lunch menu.
- There's a lack of meal alternatives for picky eaters or the health-conscious.
- Children eat from the snack bar and skip lunch.
- Changing family demographics mean preferences for cultural cuisine.
- Larger school populations mean lunch room overcrowding.
- There's not enough time to wait in line and finish meals.
- And more
Even though the US government reimburses 12.59 billion in school lunch costs, there is still a need to increase the participation of those children whose family can pay for a good school lunch. That's about 7.7 million full price lunch families, and losing the participation of these children can negatively affect the success of any school lunch program.
Ways to Increase School Lunch Participation
The physical barriers such as too few seats and long lines that can reduce school lunch participation need to be addressed first. It is unreasonable to expect students to stand in extremely long lines, then after being served, have a difficult time finding a place to sit. These types of issues are commonly resolved by splitting the lunch period into sessions and/or rearranging lunch rooms to provide two lines of service and more student tables.
Other factors that have caused a decrease in school lunch participation seem to be more subjective. These changing trends in what children of different age groups desire to eat can be addressed in different ways to make school lunch meals more fun and more tasty. New concepts to increase participation in school lunch programs include:
- Fresh and attractive meals served daily
- Prepackaged wraps, sandwiches, and salads
- Grab-and-Go lunches that can be eaten anywhere
- Service stations that are attractive and resemble fast casual restaurants
- Healthy food options such as hummus, fresh veggies, and pita bread
- A la carte food lines to serve paying portion of the student population
- Culinary dishes served on certain days of the week
- Salad bar and pizza bar for high school cafeterias
These are changes that can reduce the number of students that bring lunches from outside and increase participation in school lunch programs. Often, when these types of changes are made, the parents are given information concerning these good changes and the value they can bring to their children.
Here at GMV Sales, we are dedicated to providing top-level foodservice equipment and the knowledge to help utilize it to school nutrition directors across New England. We know how critical student participation is, and we have some ideas that can help.