Changes may be coming to school cafeterias. Here's what to expect.

By Sally Kuzemchak
January 25, 2016
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school lunch tray
Credit: Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Five years ago, Congress made changes to school lunches to help improve nutrition, including boosting whole grains, lowering sodium, and increasing the amount of fruits and veggies that kids got on their tray. Though many people praised the changes as a healthy step forward, not everyone was happy: Some schools complained that students didn't like the lunches, and some lawmakers began calling for a rollback.

Last week, as part of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, the Senate Agriculture Committee approved a bill that does include some changes—but also keeps most of the healthy standards in place. (The bill still needs to make it through Congress, but it reportedly already has the approval of the White House and the parties closest to the issue.) We asked Bettina Siegel, who writes about children and food policy on her blog The Lunch Tray and recently wrote an opinion piece about school lunches for The New York Times, what we might be seeing:

Fewer Whole Grains: The current rules state that all grain foods served (like bread, cereal, and pasta) have to be at least 50 percent whole grain. The Senate's bill reduces that requirement to only 80 percent of grain foods served (the rest can be refined grains like white bread and white rice). Doesn't seem like a huge shift, but "it's important for parents to remember that if you add it all up, the new standard will mean that in a given week, school kids will be eating only 40% whole grains in total, which is not quite as high as health experts recommend," says Siegel. "Still, the change does give school food operators a bit more flexibility in what they can serve."

Slower Cuts In Sodium: Schools have already cut sodium in their meals, but still have reductions to go. The Senate bill gives schools an extra two years to meet the next sodium goal. "We're told that food manufacturers may need more time to come up with acceptable lower sodium products for the school food market." says Siegel. "But it's good for kids' health that schools are still working steadily toward sodium reduction."

Same Amount of Fruits & Veggies: Now, all students have to take a half-cup serving of fruits or veggies (it's not an option to pass them up). Some complained that was leading to lots of uneaten produce dumped in the trash, but several studies said the opposite, says Siegel. The Senate bill keeps the fruit and veggie requirement but also calls for federal guidance on improving ways to reduce food waste (such as creating share tables in cafeterias for unwanted items).

The bottom line: It's a good compromise, says Siegel. "I think parents should feel really good that the majority of the school food improvements we've seen in cafeterias since 2012 are still intact," says Siegel. "That's a big victory for our kids."

Since the bill still needs to make its way through Congress, there's time to tell your representatives what YOU think. Here's how to find them. And read more about the proposed changes on Siegel's blog The Lunch Tray.

What's YOUR opinion of school lunches?

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.