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Frequently asked questions

CAFETERIA FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Are School Meals Healthy?

Myths and stereotypes abound, but the facts are clear when it comes to meals served through the National School Lunch Program: school meals are nutritious and an important part of addressing the childhood obesity epidemic.

 

What Do “School Meals” Consist Of?

Know the facts!

Oftentimes, people do not know the most primary fact about foods offered at school during the day. There are essentially two types of foods offered in school cafeterias during the school day. Meals served through the federally funded USDA National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (NSBP), and basically all other foods that are not.

Meals served through NSLP and SBP are required to meet national nutrition standards by federal law. In return, schools receive reimbursement for each meal served. All other foods are typically served through vending machines, a la carte foods, fundraisers, class parties, etc. These foods, often known as “competitive foods” because they compete with NSLP and NSBP, are not required to meet federal law. However, they are also increasingly being subject to local, county and state laws that require nutrition standards.

 

I am confused over the labeling terms fat-free, reduced-fat, low-fat, and lite. Do these foods have fewer calories?

"Not necessarily," says Dr. Debby Demory-Luce, a registered dietitian with the USDA/ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center. While fat calories may be reduced, additional carbohydrate-based substances are often added to these foods for flavor and texture. If your goal is weight loss, experts agree that it's total calories eaten that count, not just fat grams. This doesn't mean that controlling fat intake isn't important. Reducing fat to no more than 30 percent of total calories is an important step in preventing some serious diseases, including stroke and heart disease.

The FDA has standardizing fat content-related terms used on food labels to help consumers make informed choices.

  • Fat-free: Less than one-half gram of fat per serving
  • Low-fat: Three grams of fat or less per serving
  • Reduced-fat: At least 25 percent less fat per serving than the original food
  • Lite: At least 50 percent less fat per serving than the original food 

It's important to remember that while low-fat and fat-free foods contain very small amounts of fat, they might still contain a significant number of calories. Reduced-fat and lite foods, while containing less fat than the original food, are still likely to pack significant amounts of fat and calories. So, it's a good idea to also check the label for total fat grams and calories per serving.