The link between nutrition and learning is well documented. Good nutrition is essential for students to achieve their full academic potential, full physical and cognitive growth, and lifelong health and well-being. Developing healthy eating habits at a young age can reap benefits for a lifetime and schools play a critical role in helping children learn and practice healthy eating habits. 

Think about it.  

Children spend over six hours a day at school and many eat two or more meals there, which can be the majority of their daily caloric consumption.  In addition, schools are places for teaching and learning and are the ideal setting for children to gain knowledge of proper nutrition and build comfort with healthy foods and eating patterns.

What can schools do?

Serve school meals that meet all federal and state nutrition standards and are appealing to students. Nutrition standards have been strengthened for breakfast, lunch, and after-school snack program with the passage and implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that requires more fruits, vegetables and whole grain servings and limits the amount of sodium, sugar and fat in meals (see Laws & Regulations).

School food service can develop and market kid-friendly recipes, mix up their menus and excite their student customers. They can utilize locally grown fresh foods and ensure students and families have input and can provide feedback on the program.

Try using the Smarter Lunchrooms Scorecard for simple, no-cost or low-cost strategies that lunchrooms can use to increase participation, improve consumption of healthy food, and reduce food waste.

Encourage participation in school meals.  School meals have become significantly healthier and appealing with more locally sourced and culturally appropriate menu items. Research suggests that the nutritional quality of school meals is healthier than meals brought from home, in both lower-income and higher-income subgroups. Schools should promote the meals program and engage students and families in menu development and taste tests and assess the cafeteria environment to make it an appealing and accessible place to dine.

Ensure all families are aware of the federal free & reduced-price meal application process. Offer help to parents/guardians to navigate the process and complete applications using strategies and tools in the 2024-2025 RI School Meals Outreach Tookit.

RIHSC’s Meal Benefit Application Video is a step-by-step guide (in English and Spanish) which can be paused as needed when filling out an application. The application ca be overwhelming or confusing to complete so this simply worded video tutorial can help.

Engage students. After all, students are the customers and their opinions matter. Involving students (of all ages) in decision making around menu development and cafeteria serving models can prove valuable. Make sure they understand the USDA program requirements, such as nutrition standards, required meal components, and purchasing practices. Learning about their preferences, observations and ideas for improvement are important for getting them more connected to the program. USDA’s How School Lunch is Made and How You Can Help is a great student-friendly brochure, School Meals Design Guide includes creative strategies for welcoming students into meal program design, and the Urban School Food Alliance website includes best practices from across the country on student voice and culturally diverse and inclusive menus. No Kid Hungry’s Center for Best Practices includes a webinar recording on Planning for Culturally Diverse Menus

Enforce competitive foods laws/regulations. Gone are the days when soda, candy and fried chips are allowed to be sold to students in vending machines, school stores and a la carte lines in the cafeteria. All Competitive Foods (foods/beverages sold outside of the reimbursable meals program) must meet strict state/federal nutrition standards. This includes school fundraisers like bake sales with brownies and cookies and other treats of low-nutritional value. Competitive foods that do not meet nutrition standards cannot be sold before, during and up to one hour after the school day (see Laws & Regulations).

Provide comprehensive nutrition education. Schools must provide nutrition education to students and should model healthy messaging throughout the school setting. Nutrition lessons can be taught as part of a Health/Physical Education curriculum and also integrated into other subjects such as math, language arts and science in all grades.

Make the school cafeteria a central place for nutrition education and promotion. Signage, food placement and promotion, celebrations, artwork and announcements can reinforce positive nutrition messages and increase positive perceptions of the healthy meals program.

Ban advertising and marketing of foods/beverages that can’t be sold in schools. If it can’t be sold, it can’t be advertised or allowed to be marketed to students. Such practices are prohibited under USDA Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act and RIGL 16-21-7.1 as they undermine nutrition education and expose children to overt commercialization.

Plan only healthy  school celebrationsVisit our Healthy School Celebrations page for resources.

School kitchen & cafeteria updates. RI Dept. of Education’s Healthy Kitchens Playbook helps schools anticipate and prepare for renovation or new construction.


Federal (USDA) regulations for “competitive” foods & beverages in schools participating in federal school meals programs 
**PLEASE NOTE that the below list of resources refers to FEDERAL Smart Snacks in School requirements.  Competitive foods/beverages sold in Rhode Island schools MUST COMPLY with additional state standards** (see above RI Guidance for School Snacks Compliance)