“No child should have to learn on an empty stomach,” announced President Obama at his recent Proclamation of National School Lunch Week. 

In 1962, by joint resolution, Congress designated the week beginning on the second Sunday in October each year as “National School Lunch Week,” and requested that the president issue a proclamation for its observance. This year the week of Oct. 10 through Oct. 16 is National School Lunch Week.

National School Lunch Week is the culmination of a 2-month campaign by the School Nutrition Association (SNA) and Milk Processors Education Program to educate students about eating healthy and nutritious school lunches. 

Each year campaign organizers choose a theme that encouarges children to enter the dialogue about nutrition in school in a way that is easy, fun, and interactive. This year’s theme is “School Lunch – What’s on Your Tray?” to demonstrate that what children and adults put on their “trays” every day provides insight into their personality. 

To engage both parents and children, the campaign provides a variety of resources including a parent/student brochure outlining how the school nutrition program works and the benefits of eating a healthy school lunch, puzzles and school lunch related brainteasers for students, 5 school lunch menus complete with recipes and nutritional information provided by SNA’s Nutrition Committee, an online personality quiz that will help students, parents, and teachers discover their school lunch profile, and 5 cartoon characters, aptly named Chilled, Creative, Balanced, Strong, and Radiant, each representing a different result from the “What’s on Your Tray?” personality quiz. 

The driving force behind the yearly National School Lunch week campaign is to promote the benefits of the National School Lunch Program through a celebratory week of events and activities.

As President Obama noted in his speech, “This week provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the critical role the National School Lunch Program plays in promoting the health and well-being of tomorrow’s leaders.”  He described it also as a chance to “recognize the talent and dedication of all the food service professionals, educators, program administrators, and parents whose time and energy help ensure America’s students have the healthy food necessary to grow and succeed.”

In existence for nearly 65 years, the National School Lunch Program has been a powerful tool for promoting health and preventing hunger. The federally assisted meal program, administered by the Food and Nutrition Service of USDA, is in more than 101,000 public and non-profit private schools and residential child care institutions and provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to more than 31 million children every day.

Participating school districts and independent schools receive cash subsidies and donated commodities from USDA for each meal they serve.  In return, schools must serve lunches that meet federal requirements as well as applicable recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

However, many schools have been unsuccessful in meeting those requirements.  According to a report by the U.S. Task Force on Childhood Obesity, 93 to 94 percent of school meals failed to meet nutritional standards, mainly because they exceeded the limits for fat, saturated fat and calories.  The report acknowledged that, “unfortunately, some key aspects of current school meals, other foods at school, and environmental factors are contributing to obesity and failing to support good nutrition.” 

In his address, President Obama said the National School Lunch Program will once again become a national priority.  He stressed that “good nutrition at school is more vital than ever” in light of the great number of children in the US who are obese or overweight. He promised that the administrators of the program will “recommit to serving meals that will contribute to the health and well-being of a new generation.” 

The president called for all Americans – government agencies, industry leaders, farmers, chefs and parents – to join the efforts of those who administer the National School Lunch Program. 

Specifically, he expressed his support of the partnership between the “Let’s Move!” campaign and USDA to increase the number of schools that participate in the HealthierUS School Challenge (HUSSC).

The challenge is a voluntary initiative established in 2004 to recognize schools participating in the National School Lunch Program that have created healthier school environments through better nutrition and more physical activity. The effort establishes rigorous standards for nutritional quality in school food, participation in meal programs, physical activity, and nutrition education.

Schools participating in the challenge are recognized with Gold Award of Distinction, Gold, Silver, or Bronze-level certifications. As of late September, 841 HUSSC awards had been made to schools.  Each HUSSC certification includes monetary incentives. 

In a press release issued Oct. 8, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack highlighted USDA’s efforts to encourage participation in the HUSSC  effort to improve school meals. 

Vilsack applauded the efforts to improve USDA’s child nutrition programs. “These programs provide vital nutrition assistance to America’s school-aged children and deserve our full support,” he said.

Chefs across America are also helping create more nutritious and appealing school meals.  

Chefs Move to Schools,” a collaboration linking chefs with schools in their communities, has more than 1,900 volunteers creating wholesome meals while teaching young people about nutrition and healthy food choices. 

USDA is also working to foster partnerships with local farmers, States, localities, tribal authorities, school districts, and community organizations to provide more fruits, vegetables, and other fresh and nutritious foods for school meals. 

The president and Agriculture Secretary indicated there is still work to be done.&n

“National School Lunch Week reminds us how important it is that our children be healthy and active, that they not go hungry, and that they have access to nutritious meals,” Vilsack said.