Still, by most accounts, school lunches in America are better than they have been in decades. Cooking from scratch is on the rise, salad bars have been added to tens of thousands of schools and a federally supported farm-to-school program is operating in 42,500 schools.
“We have been through a period of big changes, and there are a lot of people who don’t like big changes,” said Dayle Hayes, an author and school nutrition educator in Montana. “But what we need to remember is that what schools are doing reflects the broader food trends in this country. It is just getting better by the day everywhere.”
Many questions remain, though. Here are answers to a few:
Has the Trump administration begun to dismantle the Obama initiatives?
Much was made about changes to the federal school-food rules that Mr. Perdue announced in May after taking over the Department of Agriculture. But the changes (to rules set forth as part of the 2010 legislation) are actually quite minor.
“What he said didn’t change anything, honestly,” Ms. Hayes said.
The changes fall into three areas. The first involves how much whole grain the federal government requires in school meals that qualify for at least some federal reimbursement. Under rules set by the Obama administration, buns, pasta and other foods made from grain must be at least half whole grain. Districts can apply for exceptions, which are especially popular with regional foods that are traditionally made with white flour.
“In the South, they are very worried about biscuits,” Ms. Hayes said. “In areas with large Asian populations, they are really worried about brown rice. In the Northeast, they are worried about bagels.” Whole-wheat tortillas are troublesome because they tend to crack when folded. “And everyone had a problem with pasta,” Ms. Pratt-Heavner said.
The Trump administration measures merely allow districts more time to apply for exemptions, although Mr. Perdue indicated that more changes could be in store.
Milk is another point of contention. The Obama-era rules allowed milk with 1 percent fat, but said flavored milk must be nonfat. Mr. Perdue’s change allows schools to serve flavored milk with 1 percent fat. But cafeteria administrators say 1 percent flavored milk isn’t readily available because dairy processors have already geared up to make milk in school-size containers based on the Obama regulations. Besides, they say, children have become used to nonfat chocolate milk.
The third, and perhaps most significant, change slows the imposition of new requirements that would have greatly limited salt. Districts still have to reduce sodium, but not as aggressively — a move that has won widespread support.
That all sounds pretty abstract. So what are school meals like these days?
To a large degree, today’s school food closely mimics the fare that children have grown up eating in restaurants. It is engineered for a generation of young eaters who are more sophisticated about food than ever before.
Students are increasingly viewed as customers to be wooed rather than as participants to be counted for federal reimbursement. As a result, food is fresher, and more children are being introduced to a wider range of fruits and vegetables and foods prepared from scratch.
Customization is big, so children are moving through cafeteria lines that mirror the kind of build-your-own-meal approach at Chipotle or Sweetgreen. Some schools are experimenting with ordering food through apps; others serve made-to-order subs, tacos and noodle bowls. Spice and sauce bars are popular, and precooked meals, while still predominate, seem to be losing popularity as even the largest districts begin to make their own pizza dough, salad dressings and sauces.
School districts in California have taken over farms, and are growing enough tomatoes to make their own pizza sauce. Alaska pollock is being paired with grits in Greenville, S.C. In Waynesboro, Ga., local grain is being milled into flour for whole-wheat baked goods.
Companies that supply processed food have started to improve their offerings as well, using fewer artificial flavorings and colors, more grass-fed beef and chicken raised without antibiotics. Baked goods are being developed with whole-grain flour that looks and tastes more like white flour but meets the federal requirements.
International dishes are becoming more popular — a reflection of changing demographics, the popularity of TV food shows and a generation of parents who have broadened their children’s palates. Think Thai-style fish tacos, spicy Korean barbecue and tikka masala.
How much can schools rely on the federal government to improve food?
Not as much as they once did. The game is local now, with newly empowered chefs and parents joining in.
After the Obama-era rules took effect, some districts reported large drops in the number of children who participated. The food just wasn’t as tasty, students said. Many people blamed the stricter standards for fat, sugar and vegetable consumption, while others contended that the food simply needed to be prepared better.
The pushback against the federal regulations largely came from those who wanted local control, said Donna S. Martin, president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and director of the school nutrition program for Burke County Public Schools in Waynesboro, Ga. “People want less regulation,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean people in every district in the country are not coming up with ways to make food better.”
Ann Cooper, the food service director for Boulder Valley Schools, in Colorado, calls herself “the renegade lunch lady.” She’s not hopeful that free school lunches and other food programs for the poor will get additional money under the Trump administration. In fact, their budgets will most likely be cut.
“If we want to see changes happen, they are going to come out of public-private partnerships or foundations and N.G.O.s,” she said. “People need to take matters into their own hands.”
On Wednesday, her Chef Ann Foundation, which provides grants to help schools create healthier food, will start the School Food Institute, which uses video courses to help school food-service operators and parents navigate the daunting bureaucracy of local and federal aid, with the aim of bringing from-scratch cooking back to all schools.
“We’re trying to get people to move from nuggets and Tater Tots to roast chicken,” Ms. Cooper said. “We can spend our time counting the grain in a chicken nugget as part of the whole-grain federal mandate, but should we even be talking about chicken nuggets?”
There’s been a lot of talk on social media about children who are shamed if they don’t have enough lunch money. What could change that?
School districts often accrue debt from children whose parents haven’t paid for their school meals. Obama-era regulations from the Department of Agriculture require that school districts have policies for addressing those debts by this school year.
As districts have developed their policies, accounts have surfaced about what has come to be called lunch shaming. Children whose parents owe money have been denied meals, fed less appealing alternatives or even been assigned chores to work off the debt.
Some people have started to use fund-raisers to help raise money for children who can’t afford lunch. Students at a school in Manhattan have even developed an app called Food for Thought, which allows people to buy lunch for those who can’t afford it.
The issue has revived discussions about tying school food to curriculums and providing free school meals to all children. The idea is that the money saved from the mountain of paperwork and the complex payment systems a district must maintain to get federal reimbursement could be better spent on the actual meal.
Although, in some circles, the idea of “edible education” and universal free school lunches is about as popular as single-payer health care, there is already a growing program, the Community Eligibility Provision, that allows districts with a large number of children who qualify for free lunch to feed everyone at the school without charge. The federal government then pays the district based on a simple head count.
Are other changes simmering in Washington?
The biggest school-food issues at the moment are proposed cuts to the Department of Agriculture budget and a battle over the new Farm Bill.
A number of congressional hearings on elements of the Farm Bill that could affect school nutrition are scheduled for October. Although leaders from both parties hope to pass a substantially leaner bill by the end of the year, the prospects are good that the matter will roll into 2018.
The Trump administration has also called for a 21 percent cut to the Department of Agriculture budget, which could severely curtail school food funding and individual programs that pay for new kitchen equipment and fresh, local fruit and vegetables.