School Lunches Lacking Nutrition, Environment Plays a Role

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Two studies have found that school-provided lunches are generally healthier than lunches packed at home, but only if the students eat them – and they don’t.

A study from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and another from the Baylor College of Medicine looked into what options are the healthiest for school lunches. It turns out neither home- nor school-provided lunches are very healthy. The studies also highlighted issues with the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.

In 2010, standards for government-subsidized lunches were raised as part of the re-authorization of the Child Nutrition Act. This meant increasing servings of whole grains, vegetables and fruits across the country, reports Dianne Depra for Tech Times.

The Johns Hopkins study, which focused on students ages 6 to 8, and the Baylor study, which involved students from kindergarten to eighth grade, both found that even thought students were provided healthy options, many students didn’t take them. If they did, few actually ate them.

The research done at Johns Hopkins showed that out of 274 students who ate school-provided lunches, 59 percent chose vegetables and 58 percent chose fruit. Out of the students who chose vegetables, only 24 percent actually consumed the vegetables that they put on their trays.

Alternatively, students who bring their lunch from home finish much more of the food. However, the food is lacking nutritional value, according to Brad Broker for Physicians News.

“Lunches from home contained more sodium and fewer servings of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fluid milk than school meal standards,” said study authors Michelle L. Caruso, Houston Department of Health and Human Services, and Karen W. Cullen, Department of Pediatrics, Baylor College of Medicine. “National School Lunch Program guidelines restrict energy-dense foods such as sweetened beverages, snack chips, and desserts, but many students had these foods in their lunches from home.”

The Baylor study found that lunches from home contain 40 percent less fruit and 88 percent less vegetables, while 90 percent contained junk food such as chips, sweetened beverages, and desserts, writes Megan Scudellari for Businessweek.

The study also found that the cafeteria environment can affect how much of the healthy options students consume. When food was cut up into smaller pieces and was served in a quiet environment, in a longer lunch period, and where teachers were present, kids were more likely to eat healthier food.

The environmental evidence matters, as lunch isn’t the only meal some kids eat at school. The School Breakfast Program delivered 2.2 billion meals last year.

A study found that elementary school students are more likely to eat breakfast at school if it is served in the classroom. Out of 446 schools surveyed, around 58 percent of them served breakfast in the classroom as opposed to another location, writes Andrew Seaman for the Huffington Post.

“It’s important for parents to understand that breakfast is important for getting their kids ready to learn in the classroom (and) for improving their academics,” said Turner, who coauthored an editorial on the new study. “It’s not just about healthy eating, it’s about getting the kids to do better in the classroom as well.”