Updated School Nutrition Standards Are Effective

Student selecting healthy food at school lunch line.
Students at Lawton Chiles Middle School in Seminole Co., Fla., choose from healthier a la carte options.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released its School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study. The study assessed the impact of updated school nutrition standards under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a law that reauthorized several federal child nutrition programs. The study gathered data from more than 1,200 schools nationwide on the nutritional quality of school meals, school compliance with the standards, meal costs and revenues, and student participation.

We asked Bettina Elias Siegel to provide some insight about the study. Bettina is the creator of the influential blog The Lunch Tray and her writings on kids and food have appeared in numerous national outlets. Her new book, “Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World,” will be published on November 1.

What does the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study tell us about the effectiveness of the current school meal standards?

It tells us the school nutrition standards are working—and working well. USDA has compiled data from more than 1,200 schools nationwide and the report’s conclusion couldn’t be clearer: “the updated nutrition standards for school meals have had a positive and significant influence on nutrition quality.”

Why does this study matter?

It’s the first comprehensive assessment of school meal programs since the updated standards took effect in the 2012-2013 school year. This study builds on years of research showing that schools are implementing the standards successfully and students are responding positively. Everyone who fought hard for healthier food in schools should know about and be very proud of this accomplishment.

What is the study’s most important finding?

Thanks to stronger nutrition standards, school meals are much healthier. The nutritional quality of school lunches and breakfasts increased by 41% and 44%, respectively, between school years 2009-10 and 2014-15. Schools are offering meals with more whole grains, greens, and whole fruits; the amount of refined grains, empty calories, and sodium in meals has declined. (See details in Figure 4, below.) For the 30+ million kids (and their families) who rely on school meals every day, that’s really important.

For NSLP lunches, mean scores for most HEI-2010 components increased significantly from school year 2009-2010 to school year 2014 to 2015.
Extracted from the USDA’s School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study, page 15.

What are some other notable findings from the study?

Three things come to mind.

First, critics have charged that the healthier standards have led to students throwing away more food. However, this study clearly shows that “plate waste” has not increased since the healthier standards took effect. Notably, the study also shows that plate waste is lower in elementary schools where students can make their own choices, such as selecting different kinds of whole fruits, and where kids weren’t required to eat lunch before 12 p.m.; both of those findings are a helpful roadmap for schools to follow.

Second, student participation rates in meal programs are highest in schools that offer the healthiest meals. (See details in Figure 22, below.) This contradicts critics who’ve said that healthy school meals drive kids away from the cafeteria.

Figure 22: There was a positive and statistically significant association between student participation in the NSLP and the nutritional quality of NSLP lunches as measured by the HEI-2010,
Extracted from the USDA’s School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study, page 39.

Finally, the vast majority of schools are implementing the updated standards successfully. The study found that more than 80% of daily lunch menus met the daily National School Lunch Program meal pattern requirements, with 95% meeting the fruit requirement.

Any other thoughts to share on this research?

Given that many kids can consume up to half of their daily calories at school, the implementation of healthier standards for school meals was a critical step in our ongoing efforts to reduce and prevent childhood obesity. This study shows that healthier standards have actually worked, and that we must protect and strengthen them going forward.   

Published on June 18, 2019

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