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School meals are important contributors to the healthy diets of the nation’s children, especially in food-insecure households, according to a series of recently published collection of research papers.

Research highlights crucial role of school meals in children’s health

School meals are important contributors to the healthy diets of the nation’s children, especially in food-insecure households, according to a series of recently published collection of research papers.

School meals are important contributors to the healthy diets of children, especially those in food-insecure households, according to a set of 14 new papers published in a special issue of the journal Nutrients that was commissioned and funded by the Healthy Eating Research (HER) program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The papers use data from the USDA’s School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study (SNMCS) that previously found that the nutritional quality of school meals has significantly improved to generate new evidence on how the nutritional quality of school meals can impact children’s health and well-being. They also address urgent policy challenges related to food security, childhood obesity, sugar consumption, and racial and ethnic disparities when it comes to healthy meals.

“The [SNMCS] was the first nationally representative study to assess school meals after implementation of updated nutrition standards that were mandated in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act,” commented HER Director Mary Story in announcing the publication of the papers. “These new papers go even deeper in exploring how national policies have affected children and schools. As Congressional leaders look to reauthorize the [Child Nutrition] bill this year, it’s critical that these standards are kept in place.”

The SNMCS assessment of the National School Breakfast and Lunch (NSL/NSB) programs showed that children are eating meals lower in sodium and saturated fat while consuming more whole grains even as costs to school districts have not increased. The findings demonstrated that the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) had been largely successful in boosting nutritional quality of school meals while offering new evidence about how strong state and local policies can bolster the impact of the national standards.

To build on the foundation of evidence set by SNMCS, HER commissioned the research presented in the recently published papers to fill information gaps on how the school food environment influences children’s dietary behaviors and weight, and which changes hold the most promise for reducing childhood obesity, improving diet quality and reducing food insecurity among school-age children. The new papers shed additional light on the effects of these policies and implications for future action.

Select findings

The research found that since implementation of the HHFKA, the national nutrition standards and state and local wellness policies have contributed to reducing disparities in meal quality across socioeconomic status and race and ethnicity. Here are some finding from the various papers included in the special issue:

  • Students in food-insecure and marginally secure households were more likely to participate in the NSL/NSB programs, indicating that efforts to boost participation in these programs, and the nutritional quality of the food served by the programs, is appropriately focused on students with the greatest need.
  • Offering universal free meals was associated with higher school meal participation among food-insecure and moderately food-secure students.
  • Offering free meals to all students was associated with lower costs for schools, indicating that this strategy can provide nutritious meals to more students without a financial disadvantage for schools and school districts.
  • Since implementation of the HHFKA nutrition standards, disparities in the nutritional quality of school meals have been reduced, with no reported differences in the quality of meals served across socioeconomic status (SES), race and ethnicity.
  • Levels of added sugars in school meals are high with 92% of school breakfasts and 69% of school lunches exceeding the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) limit on added sugars, primarily due to the sugar content of flavored milk.
  • Strong state nutrition standards for snacks and à la carte/competitive foods are associated with fewer unhealthy snack foods in schools, and with lower body-mass index (BMI) scores among students, with students living in states with the strongest laws having a lower BMI than those in states with the weakest laws.
  • Proposals for revised federal nutrition standards for snacks, similar to those proposed by the USDA in January 2020, would result in weakened guidelines and add significant levels of sodium and saturated fat to students’ consumption.
  • Schools in districts with strong wellness policies had higher school breakfast participation rates, stronger local procurement policies limiting saturated fats and sugars, and better school nutrition practices such as including students in meal planning and providing nutrition information on items served.

The study collected data from over 1,200 schools, 2,000 students and 500 school food authorities from the 2014-2015 school year. The study was conducted by Mathematica, a policy research organization based in Princeton, N.J.

“The papers in this special issue build on findings from the School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study and examine the school meal programs in the context of important social policy issues including racial and ethnic disparities, childhood obesity, food insecurity and the influence of local wellness policies,” Mary Kay Fox, Mathematica’s director of nutrition research, noted in the release announcing publication.

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