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.