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School Nutrition Environment

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Most US children attend school for 6 hours a day and consume as much as half of their daily calories at school. The school nutrition environment and services is part of the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) model and can help shape lifelong healthy eating behaviors.

Nutrition Model Infographic

Figure 1. School Nutrition Environment Model

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CDC recommends that schools implement policies and practices to create a nutrition environment that supports students in making healthy choices. A healthy school nutrition environment provides students with nutritious and appealing foods and beverages, consistent and accurate messages about good nutrition, and ways to learn about and practice healthy eating. Figure 1 shows how many different parts of the school nutrition environment influence students’ access to healthy foods and beverages at school. The components in this figure are described in the Comprehensive Framework for Addressing the School Nutrition Environment and Services.

Comprehensive Framework for Addressing the School Nutrition Environment and Services

This CDC framework provides school nutrition professionals, school health professionals, administrators, teachers, and parents detailed information on the components of a school nutrition environment and how, together, they influence a students’ access to healthy foods and beverages at school.

Comprehensive Framework for Addressing the School Nutrition Environment and Services [PDF - 3MB]

Comprehensive Framework for Addressing the School Nutrition Environment and Services cover image

[PDF - 3MB]

School Meals

breakfast plate of foodWhat are school meal programs?

Many schools provide students with access to meals through federal school meal programs including the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program. These programs are administered by the United States Department of Agriculture and state agencies by reimbursing schools for providing healthy meals to students.

Who can participate in school meal programs?

All students can participate in school meal programs, and some students are eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals.

lunch tray of foodBenefits of school meals

Research shows that students that participate in the school meal programs consume more milk, fruits, and vegetables during meal times and have better intake of certain nutrients, such as calcium and fiber, than nonparticipants.1,2 And, eating breakfast at school is associated with better attendance rates, fewer missed school days, and better test scores.3–6 Meals served through these programs must meet specific nutrition requirements [PDF - 6.4MB]. These requirements were revised in 2012 to include more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and decrease the amount of sodium and trans fat.

Schools can encourage students to participate in the school meal programs by

  • Providing meals that are nutritious and appealing
  • Obtaining input from students and parents about items they would like to see served in the meals
  • Ensuring that students have adequate time to eat their meal (i.e., at least 10 minutes for breakfast and 20 minutes for lunch)
  • Preventing the overt identification of students who are eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals


  1. Condon EM, Crepinsek MK, Fox MK. School Meals: Types of Foods Offered To and Consumed by Children at Lunch and Breakfast. J Am Diet Assoc 2009; 109(suppl):S67–78.
  2. Clark MA, Fox MK. Nutritional Quality of the Diets of US Public School Children and the Role of the School Meal Programs. J Am Diet Assoc 2009; 109(Suppl):S44–56.
  3. Murphy JM, Pagano MR, Nachmani J, Sperling P, Kane S, Kleinman RR. The Relationship of School Breakfast to Psychosocial and Academic Functioning. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 1998;152:899–107.
  4. Murphy JM, Pagano M, Bishop SJ. Impact of a Universally-free, In-classroom School Breakfast Program on Achievement: Result from the Abell Foundation’s Baltimore Breakfast Challenge Program. Boston, MA: Massachusetts General Hospital; 2001.
  5. Murphy JM, Drake JE, Weineke KM. Academics and Breakfast Connection Pilot: Final report on New York’s Classroom Breakfast Project. Albany, NY: Nutrition Consortium of New York; 2005.
  6. Myers A, Sampson A, Weitzman M, Rogers B, Kayne H. School Breakfast Program and School Performance. Am J Dis Child 1989; 143:1234–9.

Smart Snacks

hand holding a bananaWhat are Smart Snacks in School?

Smart Snacks in School refers to the national nutrition standards for foods and beverages sold outside of the federal reimbursable school meal programs during the school day. These items called “competitive foods” because they can compete with participation in school meal programs.

As of the 2014–2015 school year, all competitive foods and beverages sold during the school day must meet or exceed Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards, which include limits on fat, sugar, sodium, and calorie content. These standards are the minimum requirement for schools, but states and local education agencies can continue to implement stronger nutrition standards for all competitive foods in schools.

What Are Competitive Foods?

Competitive foods include

  • In-school fundraisers*
  • À la carte foods
  • Vending machines
  • School stores and snack bars

* State agencies that administer school meal programs have the authority to exempt an infrequent number of fundraisers from meeting these standards each year.

Smart Snacks in School infographic

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Institute of Medicine Report: Nutrition Standards for Foods in Schools

To provide schools with guidance on improving the foods and beverages offered to students, CDC conducted a study with the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to review the science and make recommendations about nutrition standards for foods and beverages offered in direct competition with school-provided meals and snacks. The study resulted in a report entitled, Nutrition Standards for Foods in Schools: Leading the Way toward Healthier Youth. The IOM recommendations serve as the gold standard for the availability and content of competitive foods in schools.

Competitive Foods and Beverages in US Schools: A State Policy Analysis

To determine how closely state competitive food policies align with the IOM’s Nutrition Standards for Foods in Schools, CDC conducted an analysis of state laws and policies (as of October 1, 2010) that regulate the availability and content of competitive foods in schools. A codebook was developed by CDC researchers to guide the coding and analysis of state policies. As of October 2010, 39 states had adopted policies for competitive foods in schools, but the content of these policies varied by state and grade level.

Successfully Implementing Strong Nutrition Standards for Competitive Foods and Beverages: Case Studies of School Districts

To illustrate how schools and districts can implement strong nutrition standards for competitive foods without significant financial losses, CDC supported a study by the Illinois Public Health Institute (IPHI) and the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC) to examine eight school districts across the country. IPHI published findings and case studies in the report Controlling Junk Food and the Bottom Line: Case Studies of Schools Successfully Implementing Strong Nutrition Standards for Competitive Foods and Beverages. Schools can use this resource to find examples of successful strategies used to overcome challenges and support strong nutrition standards in schools.

IPHI and CDC partnered to release five tip sheets that highlight key findings from the study and share strategies from districts that have successfully implemented healthier competitive foods standards, sold more fruits and vegetables, taught nutrition to students, and made cafeterias more enticing for students.

What You Can Do

Fact Sheets

CDC developed a set of four audience-specific fact sheets as a resource for school staff, parents, and young people to use to support and develop strong nutrition standards that can affect the health of students at school. These fact sheets are designed to answer commonly asked questions about the IOM’s Nutrition Standards for Foods in Schools report and provide recommendations for implementing the standards.

Use CDC’s fact sheet series as a resource to help develop and support strong nutrition standards for foods and beverages in schools

  • Review your school wellness policy to help ensure that the nutrition guidelines align with the IOM standards and that students have access to healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or nonfat dairy during each school day.
  • Examine the actual foods and beverages that are available to students including foods and beverages sold in vending machines, school stores, snack bars and as a' la carte items and determine if they meet the nutrition standards.
  • Educate students about nutrition, offer and promote healthy food and beverage choices that meet the nutrition standards.

Celebrations & Rewards

balloon and bannerClassroom Celebrations, Events, and Nonfood Rewards

Food and beverages are sometimes part of classroom celebrations, parties, and special events or offered to students as rewards for academic achievement or positive classroom behavior. Schools and parents can work together to ensure that celebrations, events, and rewards support health. For example, they can provide only healthy foods and beverages at celebrations and events and offer nonfood items for rewards. Ideas for nonfood rewards include extra time for recess, stickers, or a note of recognition from a teacher or principal.

Water Access

Providing students with access to safe, free drinking water throughout the school day is one strategy schools can use to create an environment that supports health and learning.

Benefits of Drinking Water

water fountain

Providing access to drinking water gives students a healthy alternative to sugar-sweetened beverages. It helps to increase students’ overall water consumption, maintain hydration, and reduce energy intake if substituted for sugar-sweetened beverages.1-3 Adequate hydration also may improve cognitive function in children and adolescents.4-8 Drinking water, if fluoridated, also plays a role in preventing dental caries (cavities).

Access to Drinking Water

water bottlewater bottle fill stationThe Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 requires schools participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) to make free water available to students during meal times where they are served. The standards also require schools in the School Breakfast Program (SBP) to make drinking water available when breakfast is served in the cafeteria.

In addition to the requirements, schools should use a variety of strategies to

  • Ensure that water fountains are clean and properly maintained
  • Provide access to water fountains, dispensers, and hydration stations throughout the school
  • Allow students to have water bottles in class or to go to the water fountain if they need to drink water

US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards and regulations assure that tap water is clean and safe. In rare cases when tap water may not be safe to drink, schools should provide drinking water to students in other ways, including installing filtration systems or purchasing drinking water.

Increasing Access to Drinking Water in Schools

Increasing Access to Drinking Water in Schools [PDF - 150 KB] provides school health councils, nutrition services providers, principals, teachers, parents, and other school staff with information and tools to

  • Meet free drinking water requirements in National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) programs.
  • Help make clean, free drinking water readily available throughout multiple points in school settings.
  • Promote water consumption as a healthy beverage.


The easy-to-use tool kit includes background information, needs assessment tools, implementation strategies, and evaluation guidance to provide students with access to drinking water as part of a healthy nutrition environment.

cover of Increasing Access to Drinking Water in Schools

Increasing Access to Drinking Water in Schools
[PDF - 150 KB]

Background [PDF - 290 KB]

Conduct a Needs Assessment [PDF - 373 KB]

Develop a Plan [PDF - 201 KB]

Put the Plan Into Action [PDF - 404 KB]

Evaluate Progress [PDF - 174 KB]

Appendix 1: School Drinking Water Needs Assessment Checklist and Planning Guide (Fillable PDF template) [PDF - 443 KB]

Appendix 2: Diagram of Water Testing in Schools [PDF - 40 KB]

Appendix 3: Examples of Water Dispensers for Schools [PDF - 68 KB]

Appendix 4: Strategies to Overcome Potential Challenges [PDF - 37 KB]

Appendix 5: Water Access Key Stakeholder Interview Questions [PDF - 136 KB]



This presentation describes how to use the Increasing Access to Drinking Water in Schools Tool Kit to help schools meet federal drinking water requirements for school meal programs and help make clean, free drinking water readily available throughout the school setting.

Increasing Access to Drinking Water in Schools Tool Kit: Step by Step Guidance on Using the Tool Kit

[PDF - 2.32 MB] [PPT - 12.7 MB]

Increasing Access to Drinking Water in Schools Tool Kit


  1. Kaushik A, Mullee MA, Bryant TN, Hill CM. A study of the association between children's access to drinking water in primary schools and their fluid intake: can water be 'cool' in school? Child: Care, Health & Development. 2007;33:409–15.
  2. Muckelbauer R, Libuda L, Clausen K, Toschke AM, Reinehr T, Kersting M. Promotion and provision of drinking water in schools for overweight prevention: randomized, controlled cluster trial. Pediatrics. 2009;123:e661–e667.
  3. Wang Y C, Ludwig DS, Sonneville K, Gortmaker SL. Impact of change in sweetened caloric beverage consumption on energy intake among children and adolescents. Archieves of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine. 2009;163(4):336–343.
  4. Popkin BM, D’Anci KE, Rosenberg IH. Water, hydration, and health. Nutrition Reviews. 2010;68(8):439–458.
  5. Kempton MJ, Ettinger U, Foster R, Williams SCR, Calvert GA, Hampshire A, et al. Dehydration affects brain structure and function in healthy adolescents. Human Brain Mapping. 2011;32:71–79.
  6. Edmonds CJ, Jeffes B. Does having a drink help you think? 6 to 7-year-old children show improvements in cognitive performance from baseline to test after having a drink of water. Appetite. 2009;53:469–472.
  7. Edmonds CJ, Burford D. Should children drink more water? The effects of drinking water on cognition in children. Appetite. 2009;52:776–779.
  8. Benton D, Burgess N. The effect of the consumption of water on the memory and attention of children. Appetite. 2009;53:143–146.

Food and Beverage Marketing

Healthy Eating is Great! poster imageMarketing for foods and beverages can be seen in schools including on posters, the fronts of vending machines, textbook covers, and scoreboards. Schools districts should consider putting policies and practices into place that promote foods and beverages that support healthy diets (e.g., fruits and vegetables, plain water).

Schools can help students make healthy choices by marketing and promoting healthful foods and beverages. Some low-cost strategies include

  • Collect suggestions from students and families for meals and snack items that might be offered
  • Conduct taste tests of new menu items and asking students to provide feedback
  • Place nutritious items where they are easy for students to select (e.g., placing fruits and vegetables to the front of the school meal line or near the cash register)
  • Use attractive displays for fruits and vegetables (e.g., fruit basket)
  • Price nutritious foods and beverages at a lower cost, while increasing the price of less nutritious foods and beverages
  • Use signs or verbal prompts to encourage students to try healthy foods

Staff Role Modeling

Teacher's desk imageTeachers, staff, and administrators can practice healthy eating to reinforce this behavior with students and to support consistent messages in schools about the importance of good nutrition. Teachers, staff, and administrators can model healthy behaviors to students by being physically active, consuming healthy foods and beverages, and getting involved in the school’s employee wellness program.



Healthy Eating Learning Opportunities

Garden imageHealthy eating learning opportunities includes nutrition education and other activities that give children knowledge and skills to help choose and consume healthy foods and beverages. These opportunities can be present in the cafeteria, classroom, and school gardens.

Nutrition education should be part of a comprehensive health education curriculum, but may also be integrated throughout the school curriculum. For example, students could learn how to cook in family and consumer science classes and how to analyze food advertisements in language arts classes. School gardens and farm-to-school activities also provide opportunities for hands-on learning about food, nutrition, and healthy eating.