A special issue of Nutrients explores how participation in school meal programs impacts diet, body mass index (BMI), and general health and well-being for school-aged students, using data from the School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study (SNMCS). The articles shed light on how well these programs serve kids who are most in need, particularly those living in households that are considered food insecure. Several papers also explore how well school meal programs distribute high quality, nutritious meals equitably to students across the country.
Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service and conducted by Mathematica, the study is the most comprehensive review of school meal programs since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010. The act significantly revised federal nutrition standards in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP)—for example, by limiting sodium and increasing whole grains. Because children consume a substantial amount of their daily calories while in school, these updated nutrition standards were a turning point for ensuring that school meals aligned with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, commissioned and funded the special issue, which includes several Mathematica-authored papers. We’re pleased to shine a light on this emerging evidence during National Nutrition Month. Key takeaways from the special issue include the following:
- Added sugars are a challenge. Since the updated nutrition standards were developed, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans have recommended that added sugars contribute no more than 10 percent of total calories. This article found that current levels of added sugars in school meals and children’s diets exceed this limit.
- School meals reach kids who are most in need. Students who live in food-insecure and marginally secure households were more likely to participate in the NSLP and SBP, according to this paper. Findings also show that these meals promote high quality diets for all students, whether food secure or food insecure.
- Signs of progress for equitable access to healthy meals. According to this paper, children who participated in the NSLP—regardless of their race and ethnicity or household income—ate lunches that were of higher nutritional quality than those consumed by nonparticipants. Policymakers, program administrators, and schools should explore ways to increase participation in the NSLP so that more children benefit from the nutritious lunches it provides.
Another paper finds no clear association between participation in the NSLP or SBP and students’ BMIs, but, given the changing population of students who participate in these programs, this finding wasn’t surprising. Other articles focus on topics such as coordinating with state and local leaders to implement effective wellness policies in schools, assessing changes in healthier beverage intakes as a result of the updated nutrition standards, and analyzing the association between school snacks and students’ BMI.
“As more experts use the SNMCS data to study school meals and students’ diets, leaders and policymakers should use this body of evidence to inform decision making about urgent social challenges related to food security, hunger, and equitable access to food,” said nutrition policy expert Mary Kay Fox. “Using this evidence is particularly important as Congress looks to reauthorize the child nutrition programs in the coming years.”
The SNMCS includes nationally representative samples of 518 school food authorities, more than 1,200 schools, 2,165 students, and 1,850 parents. In addition, evaluators completed plate waste observations for 6,253 lunch trays (in 165 schools) and 3,601 breakfast trays (in 154 schools). Data were collected during the 2014–2015 school year.