School meals are healthy meals. To receive federal reimbursements for each meal they serve, school meal programs must offer “reimbursable” meals that meet strict federal nutrition standards, aligned with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These standards, also referred to as “the meal pattern,” require schools to offer students the right balance of fruits, vegetables, low-fat or fat-free milk, whole grains and lean protein.

School Meal Standards

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) required the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to update nutrition standards for the first time in 15 years. The updated regulations, effective beginning in 2012, required cafeterias to offer more fruit, vegetables and whole grains and limit sodium, calories and unhealthy fat in every school meal. Get details on school lunch and breakfast standards.

Snack Standards

To ensure all foods and beverages sold in school during the school day are healthy choices, HHFKA also required USDA to create nutrition standards for foods and beverages sold in competition to reimbursable meals. These “competitive foods” are sold in vending machines, snack bars and a la carte lines. USDA’s “Smart Snacks in School” standards took effect on July 1, 2014. Get details on the competitive foods rule.