Are schools the healthiest places to eat in America?


A recent study from researchers at Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University grabbed headlines across the country. Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the school and senior researcher on the study, was repeatedly quoted as saying “Schools are now the single healthiest place Americans are eating.” Complete results are available in the article Trends in Food Sources and Diet Quality Among US Children and Adults, 2003-2018 from JAMA Open Network.

When RDN colleague, Cara Rosenbloom asked me to comment on the article, I jumped at the chance. This study (and the resulting media attention) is one more important way to share just how essential school meals are for the health of our country. You can read Cara’s excellent summary on verywellfit at Analysis of American Diet Finds School Meals Most Nutritious, including several quotes from me. It is also the purpose of 20+ blog posts where I have interviewed school nutrition leaders about their experiences during COVID-19.

Article by Cara Rosenbloom, RD

Here are my complete answers to the questions that she asked me.

Cara: In the research, it says that “the largest improvement in diet quality was in schools, with the percentage with poor diet quality decreasing from 55.6% to 24.4%, mostly after 2010, and with equitable improvements across population subgroups.” Can you comment on what changed after 2010 to account for this improvement?

Dayle: The major changes after 2010 relate to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFK) passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama. The USDA website summarizes it well: Improving child nutrition is the focal point of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The legislation authorized funding and set policy for USDA’s core child nutrition programs: the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children , the Summer Food Service Program, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act allowed USDA, for the first time in over 30 years, opportunity to make real reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs by improving the critical nutrition and hunger safety net for millions of children. Over the decade since the HHFK was enacted, several other changes have led to improvements in school meals. Briefly these include:

  • Increased funding and dramatic expansion of Farm to School programs (including school gardens and actual school farms) across the US. For details and data, visit the USDA Farm to School website.
Burlington (Vermont) School Food Project serves as many local foods as possible
  • Increased focus on culinary training for school nutrition professionals and school chefs becoming more and more common. These efforts are supported by USDA Team Nutrition training grants and by 3rd party groups, often with industry support. An excellent example is the Healthy Kids Collaborative convened by the Culinary Institute of America.

Cara: Can you describe what children may be given as a typical school lunch? Which particular foods/nutrients may account for it being “healthy?” And how did that change from pre-2010?

Dayle: A typical school lunch includes whole grains, lean proteins and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Serving sizes and sodium levels are specified by age group. More details can be found in the 2018 Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior, and School Nutrition Association:Comprehensive Nutrition Programs and Services in Schools and the accompanying Practice Paper. 

Madison County, Kentucky, meals at school and curbside grab-n-go

Within the USDA guidelines and regulations, there is lots of delicious flexibility for schools to offer meals that appeal to students, introducing them to new flavors while respecting cultural traditions and food preferences. Since pictures are worth thousands of words, I invite you to scroll through the photos on TIPS for Schools Meals That Rock, a Facebook group of 16,800 members. Unfortunately the perception of school meals today still relies on some very old tropes of monochrome processed entrees with canned fruits and veggies. Today even the canned products have been reformulated. 


Cars: How has COVID-19 affected school lunches? Are they still being distributed? Are they still nutritious?

Dayle: COVID-19 has affected school meals just like it has affected every aspect of our lives! The really good news is that school nutrition programs have been serving meals for children (and sometimes families too) often with 24 hours of school closures last March 2020. 

School nutrition professionals have been true heroes during the pandemic – making certain that children were fed even if it meant putting themselves at risk. The meals, meal kits and meal boxes that they have served – through heat, cold, snow and rain – have been an actual lifeline to families everywhere in the USA. 

Many thanks to the school nutrition staff in Carson City, Nevada

Hunger Does Not Take a Summer Vacation

When Michelle Barber (aka Dairy Mom RD) asked me to be part of an American Dairy Association Northeast campaign called #ThisIsWhyWeDairy for #JuneDairyMonth, I said yes immediately. This is a #sponsored post, but make no mistake: It is about one of the most important summer nutrition and education issues in the US. Here is why:


FREE Summer Meals are designed to fill the nutrition gaps for the millions of hungry children who are eligible for free- and reduced-priced school meals. However, according to the Food Research and Action Center[o]nly one in seven children who ate a free or reduced-price school lunch during the 2016-2017 school year were reached by the Summer Nutrition Programs in July 2017. This means that millions of children are missing out on key nutrients they need to keep growing strong all summer long. Without nutritious fuel for their brains, they may also be susceptible to the ‘summer slide,’ the recognized decrease in student’s academic skill level when school is out.


Joey loves summer meals in Cherokee County, Georgia

This post from Cherokee County School Nutrition shows one way to make sure kids have access to FREE summer nutrition. Joey IS smart and adorable and he can enjoy free breakfast and lunches in one of 14 sites in Cherokee County School District. However, some children can’t #BeLikeJoey because they do not have a way to get to the school, church, park, or community center where FREE meals are served. The NYC Department of Education is tackling the problem with on-trend meals, colorful graphics, smartphone apps and food trucks to serve FREE breakfast and lunches at hundreds of schools, pools, parks and libraries.

NYC Summer Meals

New York City Goes ALL OUT for Summer Meals

What do Summer Meals look like across the US? In New York City, they serve bagels, egg sandwiches, organic cereal and New York yogurt for breakfast — with deli sandwiches, cold wraps, kid-friendly kale salads, New York apples and plenty of fresh fruits and veggies for lunch. Every FREE meal comes with refreshing milk from New York dairy farms. In Fairfax (left below) and Loudon (right below) County Schools outside Washington, DC, offerings are similar — tasty, healthy and packed with the nutrients that kids need, like calcium, vitamin D and potassium. Remember these meals are FREE to everyone 2 through 18 — no registration, no documentation, no paperwork!

VA Fairfax LunchVA LCPS Lunch

Many Summer Meal sites serve much more than a FREE breakfast, lunch or supper. They also offer fun activities focused on literacy, math and other skills so that children can eat, play AND learn! It’s simple to learn about FREE Summer Meals in any location in the US: Just text 877-877 with a zip code OR address/city/state. Want to increase the meals you serve with additional activities? Check out the FREE toolkit available from Sacramento (CA) Summer Meal Collaborative and United Way at!CA Toolkit

Hot Supper Meals at LA Unified

This is no April Fool’s joke. I am rebooting the School Meals That Rock blog – starting with my spring visits to school districts around the country. I may throw in a few other school food-related topics as 2017 moves along. If you have an idea you’d like me to cover, just post a reply below and I promise to respond as soon as possible.


1-Outdoor EatingSupper programs are one of the newest USDA Child Nutrition programs – and they sometimes do not get the same level of coverage as the more familiar breakfast and lunch programs. They are, however, critically important to the at-risk children that receive them. If they did not have a supper meal at school, this students might very well eat snack foods from a corner store, a fast food dinner, or – in the worst-case scenario – no supper at all.

2-Fabi CartOn March 16, I had the privilege of seeing hundreds of hungry children enjoy the fuel they needed for afterschool homework and other enrichment activities. Los Angeles Unified School District Food Services Division (LAUSD) has rolled out a hot supper service in over 100 schools with more in the works, including Belvedere Elementary. Located in East Los Angeles, Belvedere has wide airy hallways decorated with murals and a staff dedicated to providing students what they need to become: Thinkers. Leaders. Changemakers. Every one that I met – the assistant principal, the school foodservice staff, the afterschool teachers, parents and children – was enthusiastic about the hot supper meals. Since beginning the hot options, supper participation has more than doubled and waste has decreased markedly.

LAUSD uses a variety of packaged hot items, along with milk, fresh fruit and veggies, which are easily delivered by carts at several sites in the hallways and outside eating area. All the hot and cold supper items meet LAUSD’s strict nutrition guidelines and are popular with their customers. It was such a pleasure to see LAUSD’s hot supper program in operation at Belvedere Elementary. I was impressed by the efficiency of the school nutrition staff in serving hundreds of hungry children – giving them plenty of time to enjoy their meals while chatting with friends and family members. This program is working because of the commitment by the entire school community to insuring that at-risk students received the nourishment they needed for the afternoon and evening. With LAUSD’s dedication to the highest quality food options, Belvedere’s food services team was clearly feeding bodies and fueling minds with smiles on their faces.

3-Dayle RocendoMy sincerest thanks to Ivy Marx, LAUSD Senior Nutrition Specialist, and Rocendo Gonzalez, Belvedere Cafeteria Manager, for hosting my visit to Belvedere – and for nourishing children well at school. Next time I visit LAUSD, I would love to meet Joseph Vaughn, the new Director of Food Services, so that I could thank him personally for this innovative and successful hot supper program.

School Breakfast Helps Students Make the Grade in 2015

By Dayle Hayes, MS, RD

While the buzz about National School Breakfast Week, is now behind us, the reasons to expand morning meals at school sit in America’s classrooms every day. Many children are still coming to school too hungry to focus on their teachers and too hungry to learn. In the 2015 Hunger in Our Schools Report from No Kid Hungry, 3 out of 4 public school teachers say that students regularly come to school hungry and 81% say this happens at least once a week. Educators report that hunger results in an inability to concentrate (88%); lack of energy or motivation (87%); poor academic performance (84%); and tiredness (82%).

Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC). McMinnville, Oregon

Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC). McMinnville, Oregon

Fortunately there are solutions. USDA’s School Breakfast Program, which is growing across the country, is the front line in helping all students be well-nourished and ready to learn. Every year the FRAC School Breakfast Scorecard lists participation rates for every state and the District of Columbia. On the plus side, the 2015 report (data from school year 2013-14) shows steady increases since 2003, with a total of 320,000 more low-income students eating a school breakfast each day compared to the prior year.

Sadly, significant school breakfast gaps still exist for low-income children in many states. This is a serious problem because breakfast improves students’ nutrition, health and their ability to focus and pay attention in class. Hungry children cannot listen to their teachers – because they are listening to their stomachs. The just-released Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee reinforces the importance of breakfast for young people noting that “[B]reakfast eating is associated with more favorable nutrient intakes compared to nutrient intakes from other meals or snacks. Adolescents and young adults are the least likely to eat breakfast, and targeted promotion efforts are needed to reach these groups. For children and adolescents, the school breakfast program is an important venue for promoting breakfast consumption and efforts are needed to increase student participation rates.”

As a mom and a child nutrition expert, my mantra is simple. Breakfast. Every Child. Every Day. Research clearly shows that breakfast helps everyone be ready to succeed – and you probably make certain that your family enjoys these benefits every morning. I believe we all must go beyond our own families and support breakfast in every school – even if our kids eat at home. Here’s what you can do to help:

While your child may be able to opt out of a school breakfast program, their friends and classmates may not have that luxury for a myriad of reasons. Breakfast is a simple, cost-effective way for high-performing schools to help every child be well nourished and ready to learn. That’s a strategy that I support as a mom, a Registered Dietitian (RD) and a taxpayer.

Apple-Maple French Toast, Windham-Raymond RSU #14, Maine

Maple Apple French Toast, Windham-Raymond RSU #14, Maine. Recipe from Vermont FEED, New School Cuisine Cookbook (

This blog post originally appeared on the Midwest Dairy Makes Sense blog as School Breakfast Makes the Grade.

31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: Success Starts with the Recipe

On December 4, 2014, I had the privilege and pleasure of presenting a USDA Foods webinar – Anatomy of Standardized Recipe: Finding and Creating School Recipes for Success with USDA Foods – with Malissa Marsden. The recording of the hour presentation is now available on YouTube. Malissa did a terrific job of laying the groundwork with the critical importance of standardized recipes.


Malissa then offered a precise, step-by-step analysis of HOW to create and adapted standardized recipes for school meals. I highly recommend listening to the webinar recording – because I cannot do her presentation just here.

I had a much easier job – talking about some resources for recipes that can be used as is or adapted to meet your needs. Sadly, I have learned that no everyone knows about the best SEARCHABLE source for USDA recipes, the What’s Cooking website. This site includes the USDA recipes available on the National Food Service Management (NFSMI) recipe database (which are only alphabetical by recipe name) PLUS some additional recipes from other sources. A couple of things to note when using the QUANTITY RECIPE side of this website (there are also family size recipes available).

  • Not all the recipes are standardized, but you can check a box to see only those that are (426).
  • You can also search by course of the meal.
  • You can create a ‘cookbook’ of the recipes you like. However, you cannot currently save it online. If you collect recipes, they will need to be printed.


There are many other wonderful sources of standardized recipes for schools. You do NOT have to reinvent the recipe ‘wheel,’ you can always adapt one to fit your kitchen and your customers! In the next several blogs, I’ll explore recipe sources for school meal components, here are two state-level recipe sources – from Michigan and Texas – that are worth checking out.

Michigan Team Nutrition has lots of wonderful recipes – both printed and as YouTube videos. I can personally vouch for these recipes created by Chef Dave Mac – I have tasted many of them while doing trainings across Michigan.


Education Services Center for Region 11 is also collecting and standardizing some delicious recipes. While their current recipe collection is small, I am sure that they will adding more quickly – thanks to Chef V and the other ‘Foodnatics’ there!


Check out these three sources of recipes – and let’s us know your favorite sources to share. We have five more days of recipes resources and we would love to include yours!


31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: Fresh Fruits & Veggies in the Classroom

This is the photo that inspired today’s post. When it comes to school meals, most people think of the National School Lunch Program. Some know about School Breakfast and the recently added suppers in some low-income districts. Many fewer know about the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) that allowed Cindy Shepherd to serve this awesome vegetable to students in Parkside Elementary School, School Nutrition Program in Grants Pass, Oregon.

Romanesco, Parkside Elementary, Grants Pass, Orgeon

Romanesco, Parkside Elementary School, Grants Pass, Oregon

I’ve actually been wanting to write about Cindy for a while because she is one of my school nutrition heroes. She has been with the Grants Pass School Food and Nutrition Service Program for the last 9 years and has been Kitchen Manager at Parkside for 5 school years. Every photo and email that she sends shines with her dedication to serving the best possible meals and FFVP snacks to the 450 students (K-5) at Parkside, like these gorgeous FFVP choices from January 2014.

Pears and Purple Cauliflower, Parkside Elementary School, Grants Pass, Oregon

Pears and Purple Cauliflower, Parkside Elementary School, Grants Pass, Oregon

All of the FFVP snacks in Parkside are beautifully presented, reflecting Cindy’s love of food and her desire to make new foods appealing to young children. Here’s the program in her own words: “On Tuesdays and Thursdays we send out trays filled with both a fruit and a vegetable for the schools FFVP nutrition break, 900 servings are ready to go at 7 AM.” That’s right folks – 900 servings of gorgeous eye-appleaing fruits and veggie twice a week to children who may have never tasted, or even seen, these produce items.

Parkside FFVP Snack Examples (2012)

Parkside FFVP Snack Examples (2012)

Parkside Elementary currently serves all students free breakfast and free lunch through USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision, last year 82 percent of students received free or reduced-priced meals. According to USDA, “The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) is a federally assisted program providing free fresh fruits and vegetables to students in participating elementary schools during the school day. The goal of the FFVP is to improve children’s overall diet and create healthier eating habits to impact their present and future health. The FFVP will help schools create healthier school environments by providing healthier food choices; expanding the variety of fruits and vegetables children experience; and increasing children’s fruit and vegetable consumption.” More details on USDA’s FFVP Fact Sheet.

Clearly Cindy Shepherd is meeting those FFVP goals – and more – at Parkside Elementary. Here’s a collage of students and teachers experiencing a Cuke-a-saurus for the first time in a 2013 FFVP Snack! Have you ever had one? Might be time to try!

Cuke-asaurus (aka Horned Melon), Parkside Elementary, Grants Pass, Oregon

Cuke-asaurus (aka Horned Melon), Parkside Elementary, Grants Pass, Oregon


31 days of #RealSchoolFood: It’s All About Local

A recent viral post on Eat Local Grown suggested French school lunch put the American National School Lunch Program (NSLP) to shame. I don’t know enough about French school meals to comment, but I can tell you that the American meals pictured were from 2010-2012 and the school nutrition world has change dramatically. The French meals shown could have come from any one of hundreds of schools across America. Why I am so sure that NSLP meals are nutritious, delicious and increasingly locally grown? Because that’s exactly what I document every day on School Meals That Rock – and I have thousands of photos on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter to prove it.

Thanks to major school nutrition movements including the National Farm to School Network, the numerous state/community farm to school coalitions, U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm to School resources and hundreds FoodCorps Service Members LOCAL SCHOOL LUNCH IS IN! And, we are talking real local, like the 1100 pounds of local sweet potatoes delivered by farmer Pete Jackson to Burke County Schools Farm to School Program. In his very rural Georgia county with one of the highest child poverty rates in the US, Director Donna Martin is growing the local economy by serving local, often organic foods including local grits ground the old-fashioned way.

Burke County

Up in Big Sky country, Montana Food Corps service member have helped to change school meals – and entire community food systems. The Ennis Farm to School initiative has created are now schools gardens, a greenhouse for winter greens and Montana Beef Stroganoff for Montana students. Kids are making and eating Beet and Carrot Patties, as well as the kale and kohlrabi grown on schools grounds. In Kalispell Public Schools director Jennifer Montague and her staff turned local squash into a Lentil-Squash Hummus snack. 

Lentil-Sqaush Hummus, Kalispell, Montana, Public Schools

Lentil-Sqaush Hummus, Kalispell, Montana, Public Schools

Out in Eugene, Oregon, local is an everything thing on student trays. On November 7, 2014, Director Jennie Kolpak posted this photo for Bethel Nutrition Services: “Great lunch today at Malabon Elementary featuring an abundance of Oregon foods, including Vegetarian Chil with Truitt Family beans and Bob’s Red Mill bulgar, homemade Honey Cornbread, our Harvest of the Month (Oregon grown Comice Pears), local roasted Pumpkin Seeds, local milk and a variety of fresh veggies.” I would put this lovely lunch head-to-head with any fancy French school lunch photo.

Local Oregon Lunch at Marabon Elementary, Bethel School District, Eugene, Oregon

Local Oregon Lunch at Malabon Elementary, Bethel School District, Eugene, Oregon

And this is just a tiny sample – tomorrow we’ll feature some of the programs that received funding in the latest round of USDA Farm to School grants. On Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced more than $5 million in grants for 82 projects spanning 42 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It’s all about local #RealSchoolFood across America. It’s time to stop bashing school meals and help support Farm to School in YOUR district!


Eat. Play. Learn. V is for VEGETABLES

To celebrate the publication of Proceedings of the Learning Connection Summit: Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Student Achievement, I’m offering a short daily post during February on the ABCs of the health and academics.


Yesterday several friends sent me a nice meme of children in a garden with the words: “Share this if you think every school should have a garden” Of course, I think that every school should have a garden! I also believe that VEGETABLES fresh from the garden are perhaps the best way to get kids eating more produce – and I am quite certain that garden-based learning is one of the best way to teach nutrition.

However, I have also visited dozens of school gardens and greenhouses – filled with a variety of VEGETABLES at all times of the year – and I know for a fact that successful school gardens take a lot of hard, every day work. There is planning, teaching, planting, teaching, weeding, teaching and harvesting and then teaching some more.

True, there are tons of school garden resources (some of my favorites are listed below). And, in many states, there are even grants – but it still takes an amazing number of dedicated green thumbs to make a school garden grow VEGETABLES for hungry kids. As my friend Alyssa Densham says, “School gardens don’t grown themselves!”

Some of these school garden resources may be more appropriate for certain parts of the country than others. Check them out with these quick links:

Every successful school garden is the work of many green thumbs

Every successful school garden is the work of many green thumbs

Eat. Play. Learn. U is for USDA Team Nutrition

To celebrate the publication of Proceedings of the Learning Connection Summit: Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Student Achievement, I’m offering a short daily post during February on the ABCs of the health and academics.

U is for USDA Team Nutrition

USDA – the US Department of Agriculture – has been developing and distributing nutrition education materials for many years. In my opinion, the recent garden-based nutrition resources from USDA’s Team Nutrition are the best they have ever produced. I am a serious fan of the very fun posters that visually express the theme of the Dig In! unit – “the world of possibilities found in growing and eating fruits and vegetables.” It’s hard to pick of favorite, but if I had to, it would probably be the Race Car poster pictured below.

As we near the end of Eat. Play. Learn. posts for February 2014, this USDA Team Nutrition poster seems to pull it all together: Eat more fruits and vegetables, Play with nutrition in fun ways, and Learn about the possibilities in growing in the garden. The Dig In! materials are designed to be “Standards-Based Nutrition Education from the Ground Up.” The ten inquiry-based lessons were created to engage 5th and 6th graders in growing, harvesting, tasting and learning about fruits and vegetables. Putting up a fun USDA poster is a great first step. Using the curriculum materials in a classroom and connecting them to school meals served in the cafeteria might actually impact a child’s eating habits. You can download all the Dig In! materials from the USDA Team Nutrition website – and Team Nutrition schools can order hard copies. Do a kid a favor – check out Dig In! and help them get excited about growing gardens!

USDA Dig In! Posters: Race Car (black beans, blueberries, broccoli, carrots, celery, green beans, oranges, peaches, red bell pepper, rhubarb, sugar snap peas)

USDA Dig In! Posters: Race Car (black beans, blueberries, broccoli, carrots, celery, green beans, oranges, peaches, red bell pepper, rhubarb, sugar snap peas)

Eat. Play. Learn. S is for Smart Snacks in Schools

To celebrate the publication of Proceedings of the Learning Connection Summit: Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Student Achievement, I’m offering a short daily post during February on the ABCs of the health and academics.

S is for SMART SNACKS in Schools

Starting in fall 2014, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) interim rule on competitive foods, SMART SNACKS in Schools, goes into effect. In my opinion, there’s lots of good news in the rule, starting with more fruits, veggies, low-fat dairy foods, whole grains, and lean proteins. Based on experience with existing standards, like the 6,640+ HealthierUS School Challenge (HUSSC) winners and Alliance for a Healthier Generation (AHG) districts, the proposed rule is realistic and can benefit kids’ health.

We also need a reality check about the rule does and does not do. While SMART SNACKS in Schools represents another significant step toward healthy school nutrition environments, it does not cover foods brought from home, foods for classroom parties or any foods sold after regular school hours (athletic events, after-school fundraisers, etc.). Compliance and monitoring will be an issue outside of cafeterias. Fortunately, the AASA (American Association of School Superintendents) has a Competitive Foods Policy Initiative to build necessary support for strong policies.

After the 2012 Nutrition Standards for School Lunch went into effect, Jane Brody wrote “There’s Homework to Do on School Lunches” in the New York Times. Her basic premise was that the federal regulations and standards are just the beginning – and that homes and schools also have work at improving how children eat. I believe the same is true for this issue.

To build strong bodies and smart brains, children also need SMART SNACKS at home, SMART SNACKS brought from home to school, and SMART SNACKS served in concession stands at sporting events. A healthy school environment will take more than new regulations – it will require a culture of wellness – designed to support the connection between nutrition and academic success.

USDA Smart Snacks in Schools

USDA Smart Snacks in Schools