Did school lunch changes improve nutrition?
When school lunches were changed in 2012 to make them more nutritious, there were fears that students wouldn’t accept the changes and school lunch participation rates would fall.
That isn’t the case, according to a new study that found participation rates have remained basically unchanged while the nutritional quality of the meals have improved.
“Practically all American children don’t consume enough fruits and vegetables,” says Mary Podrabsky, MPH, RD, director of school and community initiatives at the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington in Seattle and co-author of the study. “Eating school lunch is an easy way for most patients to increase the variety and quantity of fruits and vegetables in their diets.”
The 2012 school lunch program changes made under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) represented the first change for school meals in 15 years. The changes aligned school lunches with the Dietary Guidelines of 2010, taking into consideration portion sizes and calorie counts; increasing the amounts of fruits and vegetables; increasing whole grains; and reducing sodium.
Simply put, the changes resulted in meals with calorie caps that included at least 1 fruit or vegetable, and increased the number of vital nutrients including calcium, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, fiber, and protein.
Now, Podrabsky and others are reviewing the impact of these changes and found that the lunches after the HHFKA offered students more nutrition with less calories, and participation in school lunch programs was unchanged during the study period despite concerns that the changes resulted in a drop in lunch purchases.
Researchers reviewed the lunch program at 3 urban middle schools and 3 urban high schools in the 16 months before the lunch changes and the 15 months after the changes. In the first year after HHFKA implementation, there were complaints about the changes as schools adjusted to the new requirements, but actual participation rates were relatively unchanged and complaints diminished. Participation rates didn’t even change for high school students with the option of leaving the school to get food elsewhere, according to the study.
From 2013 to 2015, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) actually indicated an increase in school lunch participation from 30.4 million to 30.5 million, but this study indicates a decline in participation from 47% before the lunch changes to 46% following the changes.
The study also notes, however, that participation rates began to decline even before the nutrition changes were implemented, and the changes are believed to stem from other factors, such as the economy.