An overhaul of school lunch nutrition standards seems to have driven dramatic improvements in the healthiness of meals served to millions of kids nationwide, a U.S. study suggests.
The goal of new nutrition standards implemented during the 2012-2013 academic year was to bring breakfast and lunch menus in line with dietary guidelines designed to help combat obesity and other diseases linked to diets heavy in calories, sugars and fats, and light on whole foods.
The new study found not only that school meals got healthier, but also that more kids ate the new school menus and kids who brought lunch from home had healthier food than they did before.
“Encouraging children to consume school meals during the school year is an important step in improving children’s diets, as well as establishing healthy eating habits – for example, consuming whole grains, fruits, and vegetables,” said study coauthor Elizabeth Gearan of Mathematica, a policy research group headquartered in Princeton, New Jersey.
“The new rules require schools to serve meals that have larger amounts of whole grains, fruits and vegetables and limit refined grains and total calories,” Gearan said by email.
In the study, researchers examined one week of school breakfast and lunch menus from before the 2012 nutrition guidelines took effect, and one week of menus a few years later.
So-called healthy-eating-index scores – which award points for things like whole foods and deduct points for empty calories, sugars, and fats – surged after the new standards took effect, the researchers report in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Lunch scores climbed from 58% of the maximum possible points before the menu overhaul to 82% afterward. Breakfast scores increased from 50% to 70% of the maximum possible points.
One limitation of the study is that researchers looked only at changes in the menus, and not at how much of the foods on lunch trays before and after the menu changes the kids ate. Previous research, however, suggests food waste doesn’t change much when menus shift, Gearan said.
Even though the study findings suggest menu changes had the intended effect of making school meals healthier, it’s possible that new school food policies proposed in January might undo some of these changes, said Marlene Schwartz, coauthor of an editorial accompanying the study and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut in Hartford.
“I think that the proposed rollbacks to the meal standards are a step in the absolute wrong direction,” Schwartz said by email. “They are taking away the incentive for the industry to invest in creating healthier (i.e., lower sodium, higher whole grain) products for schools.”