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During the COVID-19 pandemic, funds from the American Rescue Plan Act made free lunches accessible in schools all across the country. As opposed to proving income levels and filling out application forms, all students were able to access free lunches – and sometimes breakfasts and dinners – with schools using these lunch waivers. While congress declined to extend the program last year, some states, including California, Maine, and Colorado, have made this policy permanent, still providing free lunch to their students.

Granted, this is an incredible move towards ensuring equal food access. In fact, it has sparked a conversation on the quality of lunches obtained in public schools across various states.

Now, while the federal government has a variety of rules and regulations applying to school lunches, how many of these schools are sticking to these mandates? Also, what impact could these school lunches be having on kids and their overall health?

Proposed Changes To School Meal Diet

In California’s Modoc Unified School District, school lunch menus reflect what the state is trying to change: a rotation of pizza, burgers, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and a side of canned vegetables. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service has proposed changing school nutrition standards, with the goal of improving nutrition and aligning with U.S. dietary guidelines.

The announcement stated that the updates will “reflect the most recent Dietary Guidelines, as required by law,” offering healthier options that could help heed off some chronic health conditions, including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

A May 2022 report by the USDA stated that 92% of school breakfasts exceed the recommendation that added sugars should make up less than 10% of calories consumed, with 69% of school lunches exceeding the same recommendation. This tells us that there is a serious issue of high sugar consumption in schools due to the provided breakfast and lunch. Not only that, but these meals are high in salt content, and these two combinations can be extremely detrimental to kids’ health.

Physical Effects of High Sugar and Salt Consumption

  • Increased Weight Gain: Roughly one in six youths are obese, according to data from the National Survey of Children’s Health. With 17% of youth ages 10-17 being obese, an increase from 15.5% in 2018-2019. Evidence suggests that added sugars, which are extremely common in school lunches, are a major contributor to obesity amongst the youth.
    With World Obesity Day being on the 4th of March, this is a very important conversation we should be having, as the numbers are still increasing on a global scale.
  • Increased Heart Disease Risk: Evidence proposes that high-sugar diets lead to inflammation, high triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure levels, which are all risk factors for heart disease. Excessive salt intake raises blood pressure and increases the workload of the heart, causing the body to release adrenaline into the bloodstream and leading to anxiety.
    A CDC study has found that about 1 in 25 youths aged 12-19 have hypertension, and 1 in 10 have elevated blood pressure, increasing your chances of heart disease.

Mental Effects of High Sugar and Salt Consumption

  • Increased Anxiety: The CDC reports that about 4.4 million youth aged 3-17 have anxiety. Research shows that added sugars are a contributor to overall anxiety by affecting your blood sugar levels. When your blood sugar crashes, your mood sours, and your anxiety levels can spike.
    Along with this, consuming large amounts of processed sugar can trigger feelings of worry, irritability, and sadness. A new study from the University of Edinburgh has revealed that eating an excessive amount of salty food can lead to elevated stress levels.
  • Aggravated Depression: About 2.4 million youths have been diagnosed with depression, and sugar has been shown to increase your risk for mood disorders. According to a London study, those who ate processed foods, such as sweetened desserts, were more likely to be diagnosed with depression.

Why Is It So Unhealthy?

Making fresh, healthy meals requires significant investment into schools. The funding challenge is still an issue, since and with federal money used to boost lunch budgets being declined, funding has become a bigger challenge. Inflation and supply chain disruptions have posed a massive challenge for school nutrition directors, making it more difficult to provide affordable, yet high-quality food.


Photo by Pavel Danilyuk

A national survey of 1230 school nutrition directors, it was found that nearly all of them cited rising food costs and supplies as their top challenges. Patti Bilbrey, nutrition director for Arizona’s Scottsdale Unified School District, says “financially, we are dying right now.” These financial restrictions have led to schools opting for mass-produced meals, which are more affordable, but just as unhealthy.

Mass Production 

We all know that mass-produced food is less healthy than anything you can make in your own kitchen. However, considering that most schools don’t have kitchen facilities or equipped staff, mass-produced, pre-made food is the only available option.

The most commonly eaten mass-produced foods include shop-bought bread, ready-made meals, frozen pizzas, nuggets, patties, breakfast cereals, and buns, which are usually school meal staples. Mass-produced food may be convenient and cheaper, but it is more susceptible to infectious foodborne diseases due to the increased use of additives and preservation, increasing food handling and storage time, and increased risk of cross-contamination. 

A Widespread Crisis

This isn’t just an issue in schools, but also in universities.

Students are trying to fulfill all their daily responsibilities while accommodating irregular class schedules. As a result, they opt for easier, more convenient, and affordable food choices. These are highly processed, similar to school meals. Students get most of their food from on-campus dining halls, usually ready-made meals and canned goods. These are fairly unhealthy and don’t only negatively impact their health, but also their ability to learn. 

Government Needs To Play A Role

Schools are trying with what they have while underfunding and budget cuts aren’t making it any easier.

Meals that were served under the National School Lunch Program that met federal nutritional standards, were relatively close to Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and are no longer a reality.

With the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service planning on implementing changes to school meals, there is hope that food quality will improve. If adopted, these changes will begin in the 2024-2025 school year. The hope is that they will lead to a subsequent decrease in obesity and other chronic illnesses among the youth. For now, it’s a waiting game that will hopefully lead to kids having access to more nutritious meals at school.

MAIN IMAGE CREDIT: Photo by Yan Krukau


  • Kim, Y., Son, K., Kim, J., Park, K. and Lim, H., 2023. Associations between School Lunch and Obesity in Korean Children and Adolescents Based on the Korea National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2017–2019 Data: A Cross-Sectional Study. Nutrients, 15(3), p.698.
  • Alfonso, J., Sader, M. and Palacios, C., 2019. School lunch consumption and obesity in NHANES 2013–2014 (P04-189-19). Current Developments in Nutrition, 3(Supplement_1), pp.nzz051-P04.
  • Kinderknecht, K., Harris, C. and Jones-Smith, J., 2020. Association of the healthy, hunger-free kids act with dietary quality among children in the US national school lunch program. Jama, 324(4), pp.359-368.
Bongane Nxumalo

Bongane Nxumalo

As a recent graduate of Rhodes University, Bongane is skilled in content production and editing for Print Media, Digital Media, and On-Air Content. With an interest in Current Affairs, Entertainment, and Politics, Bongane is able to provide a vast range of content that is relevant, informative, educational, and entertaining.


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