children gathered in a cafeteria eating school lunches
Sarah Biren
Sarah Biren
March 22, 2024 ·  5 min read

School lunches: Mom’s photo of school lunch shows what some school kids are offered

A mother in New Zealand shared a photo of her daughter’s unappetizing school lunch — and she can’t figure out what it’s supposed to be. The photo depicts a bread roll with onion, corn, and some other miscellaneous fillings squashed in toil. “She brought it home and I thought ‘if that is what they are getting at school I’m not surprised they are getting thrown out,” said the anonymous mom. “I opened it up and I tried to pull it apart to figure out what it was. I couldn’t even get the bun apart. I’m still not sure if it was a sandwich or a burger. It was really disgusting.”

An Unappetizing Lunch Photo

Her teenage daughter had brought the lunch home, along with her friend’s portion, since she didn’t want to eat it either. “It was pretty disgusting so I took a photo and threw it out,” said the mom. Their central North Island school provides lunches, milk, and fruit for the students, so the mother contacted the administration as well as the office of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and sent them the unappealing lunch photo. You can see the photo below.

picture of unappetizing school lunch
Source: NZ Herald

I heard back from Jacinda’s people straight away and they said it wasn’t acceptable and they would look into it.” They also advised her to contact the Ministry of Education which she did. I got an email back from them and even they couldn’t figure out what it was. I haven’t heard anything back since.”

The email from the ministry said, “We have scaled up the monitoring of the supplier to your daughter’s school as a result of your feedback, and will be working with the supplier to understand what quality control processes they currently have in place, and what they need to implement to improve their provision. If we do not see adequate improvement in the lunch quality this term we will look to a formal improvement process as a next step.[1]

Read: California Will Become First State To Offer Free School Meals To Every Kid

The State of School Lunches in the U.S.

Until updates arrive from the New Zealand school lunches program, this incident casts a spotlight on the school lunches in the United States. What is it like here, and has any progress been made? Statistically, about 11 million American children live in households without consistent access to adequate meals. That’s one child in seven. Professionals who work in school nutrition can see this hunger when the kids arrive Monday morning after a weekend of insufficient eating. As a result, these professionals are working to expand into breakfast programs, as well as summer and after-school meal programs. There is also the fresh fruit and vegetable program that provides healthy snacks to students in elementary school. [2]

School lunches in the U.S. seemed to take a hit after the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which enforced healthier meals. The new national nutrition standards seemed to increase costs while decreasing student satisfaction, which led to many kids dropping out of the program. School lunches never had a great reputation, and their quality tends to be hit or miss, depending on the school district. Some of the revamped meals cut portions, leaving kids feeling hungry afterward. [3]

A nonprofit called Do Something launched the Fed Up campaign. It involved asking for pictures of school lunches and people submitted over seven thousand pictures of school lunches. The campaign raised awareness about the quality of the average school lunch and petitioned for healthier and more appetizing and filling options. Some pictures showed nutritious and appetizing foods, while others looked downright awful. The website includes an advocacy kit that teaches students how to advocate for better lunches. The campaign ended January 2014.

Read: Mom Sends Son To School With This Lunch And 3 Mini Cookies Get Sent Home For Being “Unhealthy”

The Future of School Lunches

Fortunately, the food has improved significantly since then. More recently, the regulations have also been reduced, giving lunchrooms more flexibility, and allowing them to serve flavored milk, higher-sodium foods, and less whole grains; it’s been widely debated if this was a good move or not. In any event, schools with the healthiest menus tend to have the greatest rates of student participation. As are the schools that meal-plan most creatively, according to Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research & Action Center.

The student is a consumer,” says FitzSimons, who leads the nonprofit organization’s work on child-nutrition programs and schools. “Serving appealing meals to kids keeps them coming back to the lunch line. Otherwise, you are going to see participation spiral downward.[4]

During the pandemic, public schools provided free meals for students, as well as to-go meals during the summer. However, the federal waivers that expanded the usual lunch program were renewed for the school year 2022–2023. After that, students who won’t qualify for free meals may have to pay more than before the pandemic. (To qualify, students need to have a family income of 185% of the poverty line or below.) [5]

At the same time, having free school meals showed many benefits. First, it showed improvements in academic performance according to some research. It also increased participation in school meals, which are often more nutritious than food brought from home. Plus, some studies found that free school meals helped improve family food insecurity rates. [6]

Keep Reading: Elementary school turns leftover lunch into frozen meals for children in need


  1. “School lunches: Mum’s photo of school lunch shows what some school kids are offered.NZ Herald. Kirsty Wynn. September 8, 2022.
  2. “School Meal Statistics.” School Nutrition Association.
  3. “This Is What America’s School Lunches Really Look Like.NPR. Maria Godoy. November 22, 2013
  4. “What’s for lunch?The Washington Post. Susan Levine, Jenny Rogers. October 28, 2019
  5. “Biden signs the school meal waivers bill into law, but free meals are over for many.NPR. Ximena Bustillo. June 25, 2022
  6. Changes are coming to school meals nationwide – an expert in food policy explains.” The Conversation. June 17, 2022

Correction Notice (09/17/2022): A previous version of this article erroneously claimed that the mother in this story was from Australia. The article has been updated accordingly.