School Lunches Getting Healthier by the Year

School lunches have undergone some big changes in the past decade, mostly to ensure that students have more healthy options for fueling up during the day. Mostly gone are the fatty lunchroom staples like tater tots, sloppy joes and ‘mystery yellow sludge of dubious provenance.’ This year will mark the broadest departure from the lunches of yesteryear, as schools will now be serving meals that must meet the new federal nutrition guidelines that limit sodium and calories and increase the quantity of fruits and vegetables.

Childhood obesity is growing in the United States, and many have felt that the best place to tackle it is by targeting the meal served to almost every public school student across the country. With nearly one third of children considered overweight or obese, putting them at an increased risk of obesity-related diseases like type-2 diabetes, forgoing the opportunity to reshape the food that goes into the tummies of nearly 32 million children is too good an opportunity to ignore.

Consider that kids get up to half of their calories in school, and many kids look to school for the bulk of their food supply. One in every five American kids struggles with hunger, according to Share Our Strength, a nonprofit focused on ending child hunger. Poor nutrition can not only lead to obesity—through sporadic intake of processed foods—it also begets poor school performance and behavior. What’s more, at least one-quarter of 17- to 24-year-olds are too fat to enlist in the military, says the U.S. Department of Defense.

School lunch isn’t the only facet of the school day getting a makeover with health in mind. Michelle Obama, whose main focus during her time as the First Lady has been childhood obesity, is promoting the “Let’s Move” initiative, which aims to introduce more physical activity into the average school day. Launched in 2010, the campaign is also looking to bring other community organizations like healthcare providers and places of worship into the effort to get kids eating healthy and exercising.

More than 4,000 schools have gotten a jumpstart on the new guidelines, earning recognition from the USDA’s HealthierUS SchoolChallenge, which rewards schools for advancing nutrition and physical activity through Let’s Move!. “Let’s Move is a flowering of a movement that had begun at least a decade before,” says Zenobia Barlow, executive director of Ecoliteracy, a Berkeley, Calif.-based group that helps schools educate kids about nutrition and improve their quality of food.