Nutrition Standards in Schools

AFT members are on the frontlines of promoting, making and serving healthy school meals to students across the country. Since their introduction in January 2012, AFT has voiced strong support of the USDA’s new nutrition standards to improve the National School Lunch (NSLP) and Breakfast (SBP) programs. The new standards, based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, outline how school food professionals can prepare nutritious meals to combat hunger, improve students’ diets, reduce childhood obesity and increase academic performance.

The USDA has established rigorous, research-based and forward-thinking nutrition standards for school meals.

  • Increase the amount and variety of fruits and vegetables, including weekly variety of red, orange, leafy green vegetable subgroups;
  • Ensure that all grains served are  whole grains;
  • Promote only fat-free or low fat milk;
  • Reduce saturated fats;
  • Provide vegetarian-friendly meat alternatives such as tofu and Greek yogurt; and
  • Set caloric guidelines, with students receiving between 350 and 600 calories at breakfast and between 550 and 850 for lunch.

School meals are a key ingredient for school success.

Child nutrition directly impacts school success, both academically and socially.[1] School lunches and breakfast together account for nearly half of the daily calories consumed by students. With the new nutrition standards, school food professionals are able to feed 32 million students balanced and nutritious meals every day.

Our food professionals play an important role, not only in protecting students against poor nutrition and obesity, but in helping boost school performance. Obesity can lead to lower academic performance, behavioral problems, school absenteeism, poor concentration as well as issues with bullying.[2], [3] Students with unhealthy diets are also more likely to earn failing grades of Ds/Fs compared to students who eat healthy food items.[4] By offering more individual fruits (apples, pears, oranges), vegetables (carrots, edamame, broccoli), low sodium snacks (raisins, almonds, walnuts), whole grain crackers, bagels, chips, low fat milk and enough drinking water, these research-based nutrition standards help keep students on track for school success.

  • Breakfast at school helps children start the day.
  • Students who participate in a school breakfast program have better grades, reduced absenteeism and better cognitive performance and retention.
  • Skipping breakfast decreases student attention, alertness, problem solving skills.[5]
  • 12.6 million children face hunger in the United States. Hunger can lead to learning deficiencies, mental health issues and emotional/behavioral problems. [6]

Eating a variety of healthy foods establishes lifelong habits and health-promoting protective factors.

  • Nutritional quality of food is important for healthy body and brain development.
  • Poor nutrition and developmental issues can lead to academic and psychosocial difficulties.
  • Over-weight students experience lower academic success compared to normal-weight students, across grades and socio-economic status. [7]

Nutrition education underlines the value of healthy behaviors.

  • Nutrition education has been shown to develop students’ skills to make healthy dietary changes.
  • Students who receive just 6 nutrition classes eat more fruits at school.
  • Research shows that multi-setting approach to nutrition education (in the cafeteria, the classroom, at home) are more effective.[8]

Tips & resources

Schools are in a unique position to promote nutrition because the institution and the adults in them can model healthy choices.

Become a wellness champion at your school!

[2] Food Research and Action Center. (2010). Consequences of Childhood Overweight and Obesity. Washington, DC: FRAC. Retrieved from

[3] Food Research Action Center. (2012, January). Healthier School Meals: Summary of the New USDA Standards for School Breakfast and Lunch. Washington, DC: FRAC. Retrieved from   

[4] National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: Division of Adolescent and School Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from

[5] National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (Health and Academic Achievement. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from

[6] Basch, Charles. (2010, March). Healthier Students are Better Learners: A Missing Link in School Reforms to Close the Achievement Gap. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University. Retrieved from

[7] GenYouth Foundation. (2013). The Wellness Impact: Enhancing Academics through Healthy School Environments. New York: GenYouth Foundation. Retrieved from

[8] Food and Nutrition Service: Office of Research and Analysis. (2010, March). Nutrition Education: The Role of FNS in Helping Low-Income Families Make Healthier Eating and Lifestyle Choices. Alexandria: US Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from