SuperEval Blog

Outside the Lunch Box: Innovative Ways School Districts Are Reinventing Their School Lunch Programs

October 22nd, 2018

Male Pupil With Healthy Lunch In School CafeteriaLast week was National School Lunch Week. This year’s theme was “School Lunch: Lots 2 Love”, which was designed to help students and school nutrition professionals connect and share what each loves most about school lunch with parents, school officials, the media and the general public.”1

The recognition of National School Lunch week prompted us want to find out what some school districts are doing differently, new, or exciting in their school lunch programs. We found that across America, school lunches are getting a makeover. The days of standing in line while the cafeteria lady dressed in a hairnet served students a carton of milk and processed chicken nuggets or mystery meat are coming to a close. And it’s not just the food that’s changing. Many schools are adopting new ways to infuse education and learning opportunities into meal time. And others are working harder to get more nutritious meals to low income families.

Education doesn’t stop at lunchtime for these innovative schools and organizations that are thinking outside the lunchbox.

The Move from Frozen to Fresh

Getting kids to eat (and enjoy) their veggies is much easier at Santa Fe Public Schools now that the school district features fresh farm to table produce in their school lunch program.2 The district serves approximately 13,000 students each day. Where do they get the funding? The district spends approximately $70,000 every year on local produce, partially supplemented by the state education department. In August 2018, “Public Education Department announced it had given a total of $425,000 in grants to public school districts to add locally grown fruits and vegetables to school meals.”3 So far, the students are happy and so are the farmers. Incorporating local produce offers farmers another opportunity to sell their product which in turn helps the state’s economy. A bonus benefit is that the kids are discovering how great food tastes when it was just picked the day before. Other schools in the area are getting on board with the movement. Read more here.

A teacher picking vegetablesGetting Back to Our Roots

The Chinese Proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”, is resonating at some school districts where students learn firsthand how to grow their own fruits and vegetables. For example, at Rosedale Middle School in Bakersfield, California, twenty eighth graders are taking the school’s first ever farm-to-table class.4 In this class, students learn how to grow and cultivate trees, fruits, and vegetables in the school’s small orchard and garden. The students then get to enjoy the fruits of their labor by cooking and trying out different recipes. In addition to learning the how to garden, students benefit from teamwork and discovering how hard work, patience, and diligence ultimately pay off in the end.

Honing in on Sustainability and Environmental Responsibility

The Baltimore Public School System in Maryland holds “Meatless Mondays,” which benefit students’ health as well as the environment.5 In Oakland, California, the district adopted the “Good Food Purchasing Policy” where “good food” isn’t just rated on taste alone; the food must meet certain standards for “animal welfare, nutrition, fair labor, sustainability and support of the local economy”.6 School districts are looking to find sustainable food that helps to lessen our carbon footprint.

Fighting Hunger

Elementary Pupils Collecting Healthy Lunch In CafeteriaAccording to No Kid Hungry, one in six American children faces hunger. In addition, 13 million kids in the United States live in “food insecure” homes. This means that food is not readily available for family members. Sometimes a school lunch is the only substantial meal that a child receives each day. And many families in the U.S. rely on the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) to nourish their children. Some schools have tried to ease the burden by offering breakfast as an additional meal. Organizations such as No Kid Hungry are working toward getting food to families that need it most. Another organization, School Meals that Rock is taking this concept a step further as they believe hunger “doesn’t take summer vacation.” This organization supplies free summer meals to help bridge the gap for kids that qualify for school lunch assistance over the summer.

Getting Technical

In 2014, a research company called IDEO immersed themselves in a San Francisco school district to find out more about the school lunch experience. After asking students what they wanted, they suggested using an app with high school students called Smart Meal Technology. “The app allows students to pre-order meals, indicate food preferences, and rate the quality of what they just ate.”7 Other suggestions made by IDEO was to give students loyalty cards to purchase school merchandise, redesign the cafeteria (from seating to lighting to artwork), and walk food carts around from table to table instead of having children stand in line.

Making Food Taste Better

This fall, Dan Giusti, a former chef at the world-famous restaurant Noma, piloted a new approach to school lunch in New York City. Giusti completely overhauled menus so they’d be kid-friendly, cost-friendly, and adhere to nutritional standards — and all around $1.25 per student.

Changes Don’t Happen Overnight

To move from pre-cooked to raw, frozen to fresh, or national to local, schools must have a proper plan in place. And the more districts in the area that work together to change school lunches the better. As demand for product goes up, the cost will go down. hanging school lunches also requires more training of staff and lots of paperwork. However, the benefits can be endless.

Bonus Tip from SuperEval:
Your District’s School Lunch Program Can Help Improve Community Relations

A recent survey of 1,800 students and parents nationwide conducted by Revolution Foods, the nation’s leading healthy school meals provider, revealed “the majority of parents (88 percent) and students (66 percent) agreed that healthier school meals could help students perform better in school.”8 School lunch and nutrition is important for all schools and it gives school leaders an excellent opportunity to reach out to the community. Think of all the excitement you could generate if your school adopted one of the strategies above, or even if one of your schools offered a simple Jr. Chef competition or culinary club. Food brings people together and is a great way to show the community that you care.

For Dessert: Lunchtime in Schools Around the World

If you’re left craving more inspiration check out this article of the best school lunch programs around the globe.


1. SchoolNutrition.org

2. Nott, R. (2018, September 10). Farm-to-table freshness at school lunch in Santa Fe. Retrieved October 22, 2018, from http://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/education/farm-to-table-freshness-at-school-lunch-in-santa-fe/article_dcdb12ef-25a6-56df-84e7-47953c4bec65.html

3. Ibid.

4. Luiz, J. (2018, September 17). Rosedale Middle students learn gardening in new farm-to-table class. Retrieved October 22, 2018, from https://www.bakersfield.com/news/rosedale-middle-students-learn-gardening-in-new-farm-to-table/article_f34b197e-b156-11e8-9d54-cf05ba4fb238.html

5. Cather, A. (2016, November 22). Sixteen School Lunch Programs Making a Difference – Food Tank. Retrieved October 22, 2018, from https://foodtank.com/news/2016/02/sixteen-school-lunch-programs-making-a-difference/

6. Duggan, T. (2016, November 14). Fresh approach with farm-to-school meals in Oakland. Retrieved October 22, 2018, from https://www.sfchronicle.com/food/article/Fresh-approach-with-farm-to-school-meals-in-10612057.php

7. Stinson, E. (2017, June 03). How to Reinvent the School Lunch and Get Kids to Eat Better. Retrieved October 22, 2018, from https://www.wired.com/2014/04/how-to-reinvent-the-school-lunch-and-get-kids-to-eat-better/

8. Revolution Foods. (2018, August 22). Survey Reveals Both Parents and Students Consider Healthy School Meals Crucial to Academic Success. Retrieved October 22, 2018, from https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/survey-reveals-both-parents-and-students-consider-healthy-school-meals-crucial-to-academic-success-300700613.html

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