The Best School Lunch News You Never Heard

, Food Systems & Health Analyst | June 26, 2019, 2:00 pm EST
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This spring, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a groundbreaking new study showing that kids and schools alike have benefited enormously from new school nutrition standards adopted over the course of the last seven years. This is the first comprehensive assessment of how schools across the nation have fared since the standards were first rolled out in 2012-2013.

But if you missed the press release, it’s because there wasn’t one.

The report, which should have served as a glowing testament to the bipartisan Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and the USDA’s subsequent work implementing its improved nutrition standards, was unceremoniously posted in a quiet corner of the agency website, presumably meant to collect the cyberspace equivalent of cobwebs.

Why?

For starters, the report undermines statements made by USDA secretary Sonny Perdue to justify his recent rollbacks to some of those same nutrition standards. When Perdue first announced the rule that knocked down nutrition standards for milk, sodium, and whole grains in school meals, he declared, “It doesn’t do any good to serve nutritious meals if they wind up in the trash can.” That would be true—except the new report by his own department’s researchers found that food waste was essentially unchanged after these nutrition standards were adopted.

And with an update of the law behind school nutrition regulations on the horizon, this new research comes at an inconvenient time for an administration that might like to see its evidence-based public health protections eroded. Congress is now beginning child nutrition reauthorization, a legislative process that sets nutrition standards for federal programs providing school lunches, breakfasts, snacks, and summer and after-school meals, as well as grocery staples for low-income women, infants, and children. Although these laws are supposed to be reauthorized every five years, it has been nearly ten years since the passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, the landmark bipartisan legislation championed by Michelle Obama that finally brought school nutrition standards up to speed with the science-based Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Given the recent USDA report and research that has been published in the interim, it’s going to be difficult for the Trump administration to ignore the data that shows just how successful these standards have been.

So—in lieu of a press release—we’re highlighting the report for you. Here’s what you should know about the findings from the 2019 USDA School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study.

School meals have gotten healthier

The new USDA report compares the healthfulness of school lunches and breakfasts before the new nutrition standards were implemented (school year 2009-2010) and after (school year 2014-2015). Using a tool called the Healthy Eating Index (HEI), a measure of diet quality that scores eating patterns on a scale of 0 to 100, the researchers found that scores significantly improved for both school lunches and breakfasts. The mean total HEI score for lunches increased 41 percent, achieving a score of 81.5 out of 100 after the new standards were adopted, while the mean total score for breakfasts increased 44 percent, achieving a score of 71.3 out of 100. This is good news for the 30 million students eating school meals daily, and is particularly important for kids from low-income and food-insecure families who rely more on school breakfast and lunch to meet their nutritional needs.

First Lady Michelle Obama championed stronger nutrition standards in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Healthier meals are linked to higher participation

One of the most encouraging results from the report? Healthier school meals seem to go hand-in-hand with higher participation—in other words, when schools are serving healthier meals, more kids are buying or receiving them. According to its authors, “There was a positive and statistically significant association between student participation in the [National School Lunch Program] and the nutritional quality of [National School Lunch Program] lunches.” When the researchers ranked the healthfulness of school meals using HEI scores, they found that schools in the top half of HEI scores had student participation rates of about 60 percent, compared to only 50 percent at schools in the bottom half of HEI scores. This is good for kids, who don’t seem to be dissuaded from purchasing healthier school food, but it’s also good for schools, which rely on enough students buying meals to keep their budgets balanced.

Kids aren’t wasting more food (but they’re still wasting too much)

Despite the claims made by Secretary Perdue, kids aren’t wasting more food under the new nutrition standards. The study found that plate waste, a measurement of the food thrown away or not eaten at mealtime, was “comparable to findings from studies that examined plate waste prior to implementation of the updated nutrition standards.” This confirms the findings of a 2015 study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

That being said, it’s clear that there’s still work to be done to help kids eat (and enjoy) more of the healthy foods that schools are working hard to prepare. The USDA study found that nearly one third of all vegetables served on lunch trays went to waste, followed by milk (29 percent), fruits and fruit juice (26 percent), and side dishes containing grains and breads (23 percent). The study also found that the timing of lunch periods was associated with plate waste: the percentage of calories wasted was much lower in lunch periods starting at 12:00 PM or later than for lunch periods starting before 11:30 AM, meaning kids may be tossing food in part because they’re not hungry yet.

Schools are generally meeting nutrition requirements

Based on previous reports, we already knew that a vast majority of schools are complying with school nutrition standards. According to the USDA, in 2016, more than 99 percent of schools nationwide reported that they were meeting standards for breakfast and lunches. But a closer look at what’s in the serving line revealed that not all meals would qualify as reimbursable. The new report shows that more than 90 percent of daily lunch menus meet quantity requirements for fruits, meats and meat alternatives, and milk, while about 80 percent meet requirements for vegetables and grains. Similarly, more than 80 percent of school breakfast menus met daily requirements. However, many of the meals fell outside of the calorie ranges specified for different age groups—the study found that elementary and middle school lunches often had too many calories, and high school lunches often had too few.

Preparing to champion child nutrition

This USDA report delivered a lot of good news for students and schools. And as Congress prepares to rewrite the legislation that guides our child nutrition programs, it could not have come at a better time for policymakers and public health advocates.

The USDA research provides critical confirmation of what independent studies have been suggesting for several years now: bringing our school nutrition programs into better alignment with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is not only possible, but it can be profitable, too.

Despite its clear importance, public health advocates and science champions should be prepared to push for this research to feature prominently in forthcoming policy discussions. The Trump administration has a demonstrated track record of burying studies it finds unpalatable—most recently in its refusal to publicize government-funded studies on climate change—and this one may be no exception.

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  • James Fairchild

    Four things I remember about school lunches as a kid. They served tuna sandwiches; black olives; celery; and peanut butter. I sat by the finicky kids and ate all I wanted. Of course…I weighed in at 100 pounds. Those were the days. Now I am 65 and gain weight looking at lettuce.