The National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs improve the diets of nutritionally disadvantaged children, especially if they come from less affluent households, concludes a new paper. recently selected to appear in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. Titled “Do School Food Programs Improve Child Dietary Quality?,” the paper also found that school meal program diet benefits diminish and may even nudge over to having a negative effect for affluent children who already eat a nutritious diet away from school.
The study used data from three waves of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey covering 2005 to 2010 in which respondents report 24-hour dietary intakes on two nonconsecutive days. It focused on 6,099 children aged 4 to 19 who attended kindergarten through high school during the school year.
The study measured the nutritional value of each reported dietary intake by the government’s healthy Eating Index-2005, and respondents were then ranked by the nutritional quality of their at-home food consumption.
These were then measured against the nutritional quality of their school meal consumption, and the results showed that there was a definite positive impact from school meals on a child’s overall diet quality at the bottom end of the scale (i.e., kids whose at-home meals were of poor nutritional quality), which diminished as the nutritional quality of at-home meals improved.
The data was also measured by the students’ socio-economic status, and the results showed that even children from poorer households who eat healthy at home still benefit nutritionally from school meals, which is not necessarily the case for those from more affluent households. Children at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, as measured by qualification for free or reduced price school meals, benefit the most, according to the study.
Editor’s note: This study was conducted before new meal regulations were enforced in 2012 through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. It is unclear how the study’s results would change, if at all, following the implementation of these regs. Food Management shares this study’s results to show the importance of taking into account everything a child eats—whether that be in school or at home.