- Author: Liz Sizensky
Lunches served in the National School Lunch Program have higher nutritional quality than lunches brought from home, according to the largest comparison study conducted to date.
Published in the November 2016 issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the study, conducted by researchers at UC's Nutrition Policy Institute, involved nearly 4,000 elementary school students in Southern California.
“This rigorous study confirms what we have long known: The school lunch program, which has served the country's students since 1946, makes an invaluable contribution to their nutritional well-being, their health and their academic performance," said Lorrene Ritchie, Ph.D., director of the Nutrition Policy Institute and a senior author of this study. "And thanks to the recent, improved nutrition standards, it will only provide stronger, more essential support for our children's success.”
School lunch consumption was associated with higher overall diet quality. School lunch eaters also consumed diets that were higher in dairy-rich foods, lower in empty calories from solid fats and added sugars, and lower in refined grains than students who ate lunches from home.
Established in 1946, the National School Lunch Program is a federal nutrition assistance program that provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches in over 100,000 K-12 schools throughout the United States. School lunches are required to meet certain nutrition standards based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. New requirements increase the availability of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and reduce sodium and fat in school lunches. Guidelines on calorie limits are set to ensure age-appropriate sized meals for grades K-5, 6-8 and 9-12.
During the 2014-15 school year, the program served lunches to about 30.5 million children each school day. More than 21.5 million of these students qualified for free or reduced-price service. Given the program's broad reach and its targeting of low-income children, the nutritional improvements shown in this study are of considerable benefit to needy students for whom school lunch may represent roughly one-third of their daily calories.
Since the study was conducted, new and more rigorous nutritional standards have been implemented, thus increasing the likelihood that school lunches are contributing to healthy overall diets – and reversing the extremely worrisome obesity epidemic. Currently as many as one-third of U.S. youth are obese or overweight.
In 2009, more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat milk were included in the food package provided by USDA's Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). As a result, the quality of diets improved for the roughly 4 million children who are served by WIC, according to a study by researchers at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in Oakland, UC San Francisco and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' Nutrition Policy Institute.
“Although the findings only showed significant improvement for consumption of greens and beans, the other areas for which WIC has put in important efforts – increased consumption of whole fruits rather than fruit juice, increased whole grains – all show trends in the right direction,” said lead author June Tester, a physician at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland, “and there is opportunity for further study in the future when more years have passed after this landmark change in the WIC package.”
Diets of children age 2 to 4 compared
For the UC study, which will be published in the May issue of Pediatrics journal, researchers analyzed the diets of 1,197 children, ages 2 to 4 years, from low-income households before and after the 2009 change in the food package.
The researchers used the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to compare a nationally representative sample from 2003 to 2008 with diets in 2011 to 2012. The researchers calculated the Healthy Eating Index (HEI-2010), which is a score with 100 possible points measuring adherence to dietary guidelines, from two 24-hour diet recalls. For children in households using WIC, this score increased from 52.4 to 58.3 after the policy change. After adjusting for characteristics in the sample and trends in the comparison group, the researchers showed that there was an increase of 3.7 points that was attributable to the WIC package change. This represents important evidence of an improvement in the diets for these children in WIC households.
Children don't eat enough green vegetables
“Vegetables are part of a healthful diet, but in general, children don't eat enough of them,” Tester said. Using the Healthy Eating Index, the researchers calculated the Greens and Beans score, which counts dark green vegetables and includes any legumes, such as beans and peas, that were not already counted as protein foods on a different score.
After the food package was changed, the Greens and Beans score increased for children in WIC but not for their counterparts. Roughly half of the children in WIC households had eaten some vegetables, whereas only one in five non-WIC children had consumed any green vegetables at all in the two days their parents were surveyed.
Important policy change
The change in the WIC food package is an important policy change in the effort to improve the quality of diets of young children, said Tester, a pediatrician.
Tester noted that the results of this study will be useful to the Institute of Medicine committee that is reviewing and assessing the nutritional status and food needs of the WIC-eligible population and the impact of the 2009 revision to WIC food packages. The committee will make recommendations for changing the food packages.
Establishing healthy eating patterns
“Increasing consumption of nutritious foods such as green leafy vegetables and whole grains in the low-income children served by WIC will help them establish healthier eating patterns for their future,” said co-author Patricia Crawford, UC Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist with UC ANR's Nutrition Policy Institute.
The switch from whole milk to low-fat milk was well received by the clientele and did not result in decreased milk consumption among the preschoolers, noted Tester, Crawford and co-author Cindy Leung, postdoctoral scholar at UCSF Center for Health and Community.
This study is the first to report on the significant improvements in diet quality in young children associated with the WIC package change using a nationally representative sample, and the first to do so with the updated Healthy Eating Index (HEI-2010). The National Institutes for Health funded this study.
Para leer la versión en español de este artículo, visite http://ucanr.edu/sites/Spanish/Noticias/?uid=6735&ds=199.
The “Technology and Design Innovation to Support 21st Century School Nutrition” project will assess the impact of using a “SmartMeal” technology platform, distributed points of sale and staff promotion of school meals at 12 SFUSD middle and high schools. Sixty percent of the district's students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, as part of the National School Lunch Program, the country's largest child nutrition program. The researchers say that improving dietary intake among low-income youth is essential to reducing obesity, and schools are arguably the most important venue for change.
“Improving school meals is critical for addressing social inequities to healthful food access, said Lorrene Ritchie, Ph.D., RD, UCANR Nutrition Policy Institute director, Cooperative Extension specialist and co-primary investigator. “Poor nutrition is a primary cause of the obesity epidemic that threatens the health of American children, especially in low-income communities. We are targeting schools for interventions because most school-age children spend half of their waking hours and consume up to half of their daily calories in school.”
“This project will test whether we can change behavior by addressing the reality of today's adolescent lifestyles,” said Kristine Madsen, MD, associate professor in the School of Public Health and co-primary investigator.
“Mobile phones are ubiquitous among teens from diverse economic backgrounds, which makes this technology an ideal tool for promoting healthful food choices and nutrition education.”
The Nutrition Policy Institute was created in 2014 by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, the division of the University of California charged with sharing research-based information with the public about healthy communities, nutrition, agricultural production and environmental stewardship. NPI seeks to improve nutrition and health in low-income communities in California and the nation by engaging in research and communications that inform, build and strengthen policy. Visit NPI online at http://npi.ucanr.edu. SFUSD's Future Dining Experience (http://www.sfusdfuturedining.org/) is funded by USDA and the Sara & Evan Williams Foundation.
The U.S. government should promote plain drinking water as the beverage of choice, according to comments submitted today by the University of California's Nutrition Policy Institute (NPI) at a public meeting for oral testimony on the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. The institute also urged the U.S. Department
of Agriculture to add a symbol for water to its MyPlate graphic.
NPI experts said the government should employ strong language encouraging consumption of plain drinking water as a strategy in the fight against childhood obesity. Studies have established that Americans' single largest source of added sugars is sugar-sweetened beverages, that sugar-sweetened beverages are among the top sources of calories for U.S. children and teens, and that there are income and racial disparities in sugar-sweetened beverage consumption.
“It is clear from the evidence that a major contributor to obesity is sugary drinks,” said NPI Director Lorrene Ritchie. “And the healthiest alternative to sugary drinks is plain water.”
NPI noted that the Advisory Committee's 2015 scientific report said, “Strategies are needed to encourage the U.S. population to drink water when they are thirsty.” MyPlate – the infographic used by USDA to portray the recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans – is the “ideal platform” from which to encourage water consumption, according to NPI. In its comments, the institute said, “the addition of a water symbol will enable MyPlate to promote water consumption along with its other strong messages about a healthy diet.”
Ritchie said NPI is encouraging the public to join them in sending a message to the government. “Tell Washington to make water first for thirst and ask the USDA to reinforce it with an icon for water on MyPlate,” she said.
NPI developed a “Take Action!” page on its website with easy-to-follow guidelines for submitting comments on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The “Take Action!” web page is located at http://npi.ucanr.edu/water.
The Nutrition Policy Institute was created in 2014 by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, the division of the University of California system charged with sharing research-based information with the public about healthy communities, nutrition, agricultural production and environmental stewardship. The institute seeks to improve eating habits and reduce obesity, hunger and chronic disease risk in California children and their families and beyond. Visit NPI online at http://npi.ucanr.edu.
- Author: Pat Bailey, UC Davis News Service, (530) 752-9843, firstname.lastname@example.org
The percentage of overweight or obese children in test schools dropped from 56 percent to 38 percent over the course of a single school year, thanks to a new nutrition program developed and tested in the classroom by nutrition researchers at the University of California, Davis.
The new program fits into the new Common Core educational standards.
"The education component of this program is intended to help children develop nutrition-related problem solving skills," said co-author Jessica Linnell, a senior doctoral candidate in the UC Davis Department of Nutrition. "We think that these skills, combined with knowledge about foods, may be critical in order for children to make healthy choices."
Researchers say the program could be adopted nationally at little cost to schools. The program was pilot-tested for this study in schools located in Sacramento and Stanislaus counties. Study findings were reported recently during the Experimental Biology 2014 meeting.
"When we designed the study, we anticipated short-term outcomes such as kids having more knowledge of nutrition or being able to identify more vegetables," said Rachel Scherr, assistant project scientist in the UC Davis Department of Nutrition and one of the study's lead investigators. "We always had a long-term goal of decreasing body mass index, but we didn't anticipate that it would happen in such a short timeframe, so we are thrilled."
In a randomized control study, the researchers found that fourth-graders who participated in the nutrition program ate substantially more vegetables and lowered their body mass index during the school year that the nutrition program was implemented.
Senior author Sheri Zidenberg-Cherr, a Cooperative Extension specialist In the Department of Nutrition and co-director of the UC Davis Center for Nutrition in Schools, said that the project could not have been possible without the work of a highly interdisciplinary team, including collaborators from University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources; the UC Davis departments of Nutrition, Human Ecology, Population Health and Reproduction, and Plant Sciences; the UC Davis Health System, Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing, Foods for Health Institute and Agricultural Sustainability Institute; and the University of Utah Department of Physics and Astronomy.
The study was funded by a UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources Competitive Grant.