This week, I’m writing about one of the topics that I’m sure is very near and dear to your hearts, as it is to mine – sack lunches from home versus school lunches.

How Did We End Up Here?

Working in the school nutrition industry, we understand just how nutrient dense the meals are that we serve children. With the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA) in 2010, school meals became more closely scrutinized than ever for their well-rounded health content. Yet, many districts saw their participation numbers drop dramatically. I know you’re nodding your head in agreement, because chances are you know firsthand what I’m talking about!
As more children start to bring lunches from home and forego the nutritious school lunch, we, as school nutrition professionals, ask ourselves, how did we get here? Our government implemented a law, regardless of your opinions on it, designed to provide healthier foods to children during the school day to help build stronger bodies and sharper minds. Now we find that law with seemingly good intentions has somehow backfired on us in some cases. We find ourselves fighting two opposing battles – struggling to meet the new nutritional guidelines while trying to get the students to eat the meals prepared in schools.

Research Proves School Meals More Nutritious

The irony of it all is that the meals prepared in school cafeterias and central kitchens across this country are actually healthier than many of the meals that children (or parents) pack and bring from home.
In a recent study of Houston area schools, the nutrient gaps between fruit and vegetables found in packed lunches versus school lunches were extremely wide. In fact, students who brought lunches from home ended up eating between 8-10% of the recommended amount of vegetables per meal on average—less than 10% of the 3/4 cup recommended serving! That’s next to nothing!
Similar results were found in a study conducted by researchers at Virginia Tech University. Meals brought from home had a high probability of including sugary drinks like soda, chips, dessert, or even all three. Some parents might say that their child’s meals are packed with love, but in reality, they are packed with a lot more than that. Sack lunches were found to have higher sugar and fat content, along with more calories than a reimbursable meal option sold in the school cafeteria.

Tips to Increase Participation in School Meals

With study after study pointing to what we already know—that school meals are the best choice for school-aged children—how do we turn the tide and start bumping up those participation numbers? I’ve put together a few tips that you can try using in your district’s nutrition operation.


    This really is the best tip I can provide. Find ways to educate those in charge of packing the kids lunches (more often than not, it’s the parents and not the student) about the nutrient differences between sack and school lunches. It is likely that parents are already at least somewhat aware that school meals are nutritious, especially with the recent public push made by First Lady Michelle Obama. However, they may not be aware how nutrient deficient the lunches are that they pack for their children. Spreading awareness (but be careful not to offend!) through your newsletter, website, social media channels, etc. is a great way to begin to educate parents and students alike.

    [By the way, I wrote a blog last week on why using social media in your nutrition operation is so important – check it out here.]
  • Build Excitement, and They Will Come!

    Work to build excitement around your district’s nutrition program. Just making parents and students aware of some of the great things you have cooking in the kitchen (excuse the pun!) can drive students to forego the homemade lunch for trying the trendy entrée of the day. Program ideas can include incorporating specialty “themed” days of the week, cleverly named entrees, and student assistance in developing new menu items.

  • Presentation is Everything

    Whether we like it or not, we’re constantly fighting a battle to crush the old school-food stereotypes of the past. That’s why it’s more important than ever to deliver beautiful meal trays and clean lunch lines. If you have your fruit of the day (let’s say that it’s watermelon, apples, mangos, and oranges) arranged in your flat cooler into a smiley face with symmetric piles around it, students are more likely to choose the fruit, compared to just picking an apple out of a bin of other apples.

Do you have any other useful tips on how to increase participation in your school lunch program? Maybe something that has worked for your district or school in the past? Let me know in the comments section below!

Photo Credits: Mesquite ISD Food & Nutrition Services and The Sensitive Life