The Voice From the Kitchen
School Nutrition Professionals: The Miracle Workers Running School Cafeterias
Balancing tight budgets, complex nutrition regulations and strict food safety requirements is all
in a day’s work for school nutrition professionals – and let’s not forget the hundreds of hungry
mouths to feed!
In many cafeterias, school nutrition employees move hundreds of students through the lunch line
with only a few seconds to ensure each tray contains the required components of a reimbursable
meal, assist students with food allergies, ring up each meal and provide change.
Meanwhile, school nutrition professionals must be trained in food safety and sanitation and
follow federal, state and local regulations and to ensure school meals are safe and healthy. They
must guarantee their programs meet all the requirements of the federal Eligibility Manual for
School Meals; effectively implement complex regulations such as the Final Rule: School Food
Safety Program Based on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point Principles and at all times
ensure the lunches they serve provide one‐third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances of
protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron and calcium, among other standards. All of this must be
achieved within the framework of a budget that leaves little more than $1 to purchase food for
In the face of these challenges, school nutrition professionals use their creativity to make the
cafeteria a fun and welcoming place all year long and perform their jobs each day because they
care about the children they serve. So next time you visit your child’s school cafeteria be sure to
thank the people working behind the counter!
How can parents get involved in school meals programs?
• Getting involved in school meals programs is easy. Start with these easy steps:
- Review cafeteria menus with your child and be encouraging about trying new menu items. Try new foods – especially fruits and vegetables – at home and your child may be more willing to try these foods at school.
- Visit the school cafeteria to make your own observations and have lunch. Check with the principal first to make sure that is allowed!
- Introduce yourself to the school nutrition staff at your child’s school. They can answer questions or concerns about everything from menu options and meal preparation methods to waiting time in line.
Healthy School Meals / Today's School Lunch
• Fresh Carrots and Grape Tomatoes - Innovations like farm-to-school projects with locally grown produce or school gardens
are impacting students' choices on the tray.
• Fruit Medley - A variety of colorful fruits are offered each day in cafeterias, supplying an array of
essential nutrients that are critical for growth and development.
• Low-fat or Fat-Free Milk - Milk (white or flavored) ranks among the top sources of several nutrients including
calcium, vitamin D, protein, potassium, magnesium, riboflavin and zinc.
• Turkey & Cheese Sandwich with Whole Grain Bread Grains (increasingly whole grain items) and lean protein sources are
served in age appropriate portions that limit fat and saturated fat.
Are school meals nutritious?
• School meals are healthy meals that are required to meet science-based, federal nutrition
standards limiting fat and portion size and requiring that schools offer the right balance of
fruits, vegetables, milk, grains and proteins with every meal.
• On January 25, 2012, First Lady Michelle Obama announced new school meal nutrition
standards that go into effect starting on July 1, 2012. Under these standards:
- No more than 1/3 of school lunch (1/4 of school breakfast) calories can come from fat; less than 10% from saturated fat.
- School meals must meet strict calorie limits.
- Schools must gradually reduce sodium levels in school meals.
- Cafeterias must offer larger servings of vegetables and fruit with every school lunch, and children must take at least one serving. Schools must offer a wide variety of vegetables, including at least a weekly serving of dark green and red/orange vegetables and legumes.
- Milk must be fat-free or 1% (flavored milk must be fat-free).
- Within two years, all grains offered must be whole-grain rich
Are school meals safe?
• School nutrition professional’s care for the children they serve, and through strict food
safety procedures and staff training, school nutrition professionals maintain a superior
safety record while providing nutritious meals to millions of children each day. Some of
the steps schools take to ensure their meals are safe include:
- Taking at least two internal temperatures from each batch of food being cooked
- Maintaining records of cooking, cooling, and reheating temperatures in the food preparation process – the basis for periodic reviews of the overall food safety program
- Pre-chilling all salad ingredients to help maintain cold food temperatures
- Preheating transfer carts before food is transported
Why should I encourage my children to eat school meals?
• Providing students their choice of milk, fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean
proteins, school meals are a great value and a huge convenience for busy parents. School
cafeterias offer students a variety of healthy choices and help children learn how to
assemble a well-balanced meal. Parents can rest assured that there’s no super-sizing in
school cafeterias because federal regulations require schools to serve age-appropriate
Don’t school meals contain processed foods?
• What have become known as “processed foods” are increasingly being prepared with
healthier ingredients, as well as less fat, sodium and sugar.
My child’s school has vending machines – are the foods sold in these machines
- Pizzas are increasingly made with whole grain crusts, low-sodium sauce and reduced fat cheese.
- Chicken nuggets regularly use whole grain breading and are baked rather than fried.
- French fries are often without trans fat and baked instead of fried – and many schools are now serving baked sweet potato fries.
subject to the same regulations as school meals?
• Currently, foods sold in school vending machines, snack bars and a la carte lines are not
required to meet federal nutrition standards. However, The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids
Act requires the federal government to create standards for these “competitive foods.”
Once these regulations are developed, all foods sold in school will be healthy choices.
The law does not impact food brought in from home, served at classroom parties or
available though school fundraisers, but some schools have established their own
restrictions on these items.
What are the beverage options with school meals?
• School nutrition programs offer fat-free or low-fat milk (flavored or regular) with each
meal. School meals offer flavored milk as an option because experts agree that to ensure
intake of calcium, vitamin D, protein and other nutrients important for growth and
development, it is better for children and adolescents to drink flavored milk than to avoid
milk altogether. In fact, leading health and nutrition organizations, including the
American Academy of Pediatrics, American Heart Association, American Dietetic
Association, the National Medical Association, and School Nutrition Association, have
all expressed their support for low-fat and fat-free milk in schools, including flavored
• This school year the majority of flavored milk choices will be less than 150 calories –
just 31 calories more than white milk. Fat-free and low-fat chocolate milks are projected
to contain 38% less sugar than just five years ago, according to a new national analysis of
flavored milk in school. Milk processors continue to work hard to provide nutritious new
products with the same great taste kids love.
• To find out more on the importance of flavored milk to a student’s nutrition click here,
and review these handouts with facts about milk’s benefits and how it stacks up
nutritionally to other popular beverages.
• Federal law prohibits the sale of soda in the cafeteria during the school lunch period.
State and local regulations may further prohibit the sale of soda before or after the lunch
period or in other locations on the school campus.
How are school nutrition programs working to make healthy meals kid-friendly?
• Children can be notoriously picky eaters, but school nutrition directors are always
working to find new healthy recipes that children are willing to eat. Many conduct
student taste tests and involve students in menu planning.
• Schools and the foodservice industry are making student favorites more healthy, such as
serving pizza on whole grain bread with low-sodium sauce and low-fat cheese. Students
often don’t even notice the difference. School nutrition programs also work to
incorporate culturally appropriate foods into their menus to meet the tastes of their
diverse student populations, as well as provide alternative foods for students with dietary
restrictions and allergies.
Are school nutrition programs supporting Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign?
As members of the School Nutrition Association, 53,000 school nutrition professionals
are partnering with Let’s Move! in support of programs that further the health and well
being of the nation’s children.
How many schools participate in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs?
The National School Lunch Program operates in nearly 95% of America’s schools, providing lunches to more than 31 million children daily with 5 billion lunches served annually. Approximately 85% of schools participate in the National School Breakfast Program (NSBP), which serves more than 11 million children daily, or 1.9 billion breakfasts a year.
Do all students have access to the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs?
All children at participating schools may purchase meals, meeting federal nutrition standards, through the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, but families with incomes at or below 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free or reduced price meals. Families receive applications for the free and reduced price program from their school nutrition department at the start of the school year. An application may be submitted any time during the school year for qualification.
Judith Pitrowski Food & Nutrition Director, 978-536-6535