Are School Lunches Contributing to Diabetes? Nutritional Problems with School Lunches

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The Contents of School Lunches

Are school lunches contributing to diabetes? For thousands of kids in today’s public schools, the answer may be a resounding yes.

The National School Lunch Program was launched in 1946, and it gives money to public schools to offer hot school lunches, which are free for low-income students. Sounds altruistic, and it is, until you hear where the food comes from and what it looks like. Most of the lunch options are high in fat, heavily processed and made from low-grade meats or cheeses. The U.S.D.A. also sends “bonus” foods to schools, which are just excess products from large U.S. food producers. In fact, schools end up paying only a bit more than 20 cents a meal for these foods.

But what do the meals look like? Nutritionally, the foods are usually made from refined grains (e.g., bagels, toast), deep fried (e.g., chicken nuggets, French fries) or doused in sugar (e.g., cinnamon toast). There is usually a fruit or vegetable on the menu, but rarely as part of the main dish. The nutritional value of these foods mirrors the nutrition value of most fast foods - which doesn’t say much for the lunches. Children who are already overweight need a healthy diet, but instead they are fed nutritional void foods.

The Causes of Type 2 Diabetes

Now, on to diabetes. Although some type 2 diabetes risk factors, such as age, family history and ethnicity are out of our control, there are two factors that we can actually change: nutrition and physical activity. In terms of nutrition, a healthy diet to prevent diabetes would entail exchanging unhealthy fats like vegetable oil or margarine for healthy fats like olive oil or salmon, exchanging refined grains for whole grains, adding vegetables and fruits, and minimizing sugar intake.

Research has shown that a healthier diet can lower the chances of developing diabetes. One study, conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, discovered that obesity had the strongest impact on predicting whether a person would develop type 2 diabetes. Another study, by the Finnish Diabetes Prevention Study Group, concluded that losing weight and increasing physical activity levels could reduce the risk of a person developing type 2 diabetes by over 50 percent.

School Lunches and Diabetes

So what does all this have to do with school lunches contributing to diabetes? Most school lunches are full of refined grains, sugars and unhealthy fats. They are low in fiber and other nutrients from whole grains, fruits and vegetables. According to the above research on diabetes prevention, the ingredients in school lunches are part of a one-way-ticket to increasing the risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Not only that, but these school lunches are training students' taste buds. Day after day of eating the same high-calorie, low-fiber diet will leave students with a predilection for fried chicken nuggets and pizza over healthier fare. Even once they have graduated from school and moved on, they may continue to eat the same way that they did before.

On January of 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed a new set of guidelines for school lunches. According to these guidelines, school meals would have a set number of calories, few trans fats, more fruits and vegetables, low- or nonfat milk instead of whole, and whole grains instead of refined grains. Although these guidelines have not yet been accepted, changing school lunches according to this proposal may drastically lower the diabetes risk across the U.S.


Harvard School of Public Health. “Type 2 Diabetes.”

Web MD. “Type 2 Diabetes Prevention.”

Web MD. “Chef Jamie Oliver Makes Over School Lunches.”

Medicine Net. “U.S. Aims to Make School Lunches Healthier.”

New York Times. “No Lunch Left Behind.”

This post is part of the series: Facts About Optimum Nutrition

Confused about how to stay as healthy as possible? This series of articles contains facts about optimum nutrition, including how many calories you will need to consume each day in order to maintain a healthy weight.

  1. Daily Intake of Calories: What You Need to Know
  2. Are School Lunches Contributing to the Development of Diabetes in Children?