Schools Are Serving More Nutritious Lunches—but Are Kids Eating Any Healthier?

Schools Are Serving More Nutritious Lunches—but Are Kids Eating Any Healthier?

Another study, one of the most rigorous yet, has shown that the improved nutrition requirements for school lunches brought about by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2012 is leading to healthier meals for students. The question remains, however, if public school students are actually eating those meals.

The study, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, looked at more than 1.7 million school meals served at three middle schools and three high schools in Washington state. More than half of the students at the schools, located in urban districts, were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Over the course of more than a year and a half of documenting the lunch selections of students, with the implementation of the new standards coming at the halfway point, the researchers observed a marked increase in the nutritional quality of the meals. Not only were the foods selected more energy dense, but they included higher levels of a number of nutrients, including calcium, vitamin C, vitamin A, iron, fiber, and protein.

“This shows that the policy is working,” Donna B. Johnson, a professor at the University of Washington and the study’s lead author, told The New York Times. “It’s improved the quality of meals served to millions of children every day. Districts can do it, and children stay with it. Kids are healthier because of it.”

Other research, however, has suggested that serving a healthier lunch doesn’t necessarily mean kids are going to be healthier. What’s left on the lunch trays—and eventually makes its way into the garbage—shows that changing nutritional standards hasn’t changed what kids want to eat, because much of that new, healthy food is being thrown away. A study of 240 schools published last August found that while the percentage of kids selecting fruits and vegetables increased from 84.3 percent to 97.5 percent, consumption dropped by 13 percent, and waste spiked by 56 percent.

JAMA also published an editorial on the new study by Erin Hager of the University of Maryland and Lindsey Turner of Boise State University. “Because the National School Lunch Program reaches more than 31 million students each day in 99% of U.S. public schools and 83% of private schools,” the two wrote, “the new standards have the potential to significantly and consistently affect the nutritional health of children.”

That may be the case, but to bring that influence to bear, we need to look beyond what kids are picking out to eat and address what’s being consumed.

Related stories on TakePart:

Kids Are Boycotting School Lunches They Say Are Worse Than Prison Food

The Truth Behind Those Photos of School Lunches Around the World

Want Kids to Eat Healthier School Lunches? Give Them Time

Original article from TakePart