Study Suggests Healthier School Lunches a Slight Success


A new study has discovered that children are choosing healthier lunches at school as a result of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.

The report published in JAMA Pediatrics suggests that the changes came about from an increase in variety, portion size, and the number of servings of fruits and vegetables, writes Mary Elizabeth Dallas for USNews.

“We found that the implementation of the new meal standards was associated with the improved nutritional quality of meals selected by students,” according to study author Donna Johnson, from the University of Washington’s Nutritional Sciences Program.

Nutritional standards for the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program were updated through the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.  Taking effect in the 2012-13 school year, the act increased whole grains, fruits, and vegetables available in lunchrooms in addition to other food requirements such as stricter limits on fats, calories, and sodium, as well as requiring students to choose at least one fruit or vegetable at each meal.  Over 31 million students benefit from the lunch program each year.

The goal of the law was to reduce childhood obesity in the US through the offering of more nutritional foods at school.  Over the past 30 years, obesity rates have more than doubled for children in the US and quadrupled for adolescents, writes Honor Whiteman for Medical News Today.

The study took a closer look at the nutritional quality of the food that students chose to eat while at school.  Researchers looked at the number of students who ate school meals before and after the new rules took effect.  The team discovered that the nutritional standards did not have any negative effects on student participation in school meal programs.

“Anecdotally, there were people saying that that’s what happened,” but the study shows that the law has been implemented without any real negative side effects, Johnson said. “There may have been individuals who were unhappy, but overall the meals got healthier.”

Researchers looked at changes made to over 1.7 million lunches at three middle schools and three high schools at an urban school district in Washington state between 2011 and 2014.

The nutritional quality of the food was estimated using a calculation of calcium, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, fiber, and protein.  The energy density of food was also considered.  Through this, researchers discovered that the nutritional quality of the foods served greatly increased at the same time that the energy density decreased.

Prior to the updated guidelines, meal participation stood at 47%.  After the new guidelines were implemented, it was roughly unchanged at 46%.  However, researchers stressed that their findings only showed what foods students selected to eat, not what was actually eaten.

Researchers added that their findings were limited to a single urban high school and may not be similar in rural schools or elementary schools, writes Bill Bush for The Columbus Dispatch.

The act is currently under attack by critics who argue that individual school districts should be able to determine their own menus.  Congress did not reauthorize the law last year.