School lunches and breakfasts are getting more healthful, but they still contain too much fat and too many calories, according to the latest national evaluation of the federal government’s school-meals program.
The federally funded evaluation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program is based on studies of a nationally representative sample of school meal programs in 398 public schools in 130 districts. The results were published this month in a special issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
According to a summary of the findings, most K-12 schools are providing more nutritious meals than they did during the 1998-99 school year, which was the last time federal evaluators checked. But the researchers concluded that schools still need to cut down on saturated fat and sodium and offer more fresh fruit, whole-grain breads, and legumes.
Drawing on health and dietary data for more than 2,300 students in the study, the researchers also found links between the nutritional quality of school meals and students’ body-mass indexes. For example, elementary school students were more likely to be overweight when their schools offered french fries or desserts more than once a week. Among middle and high school students, attending a school with vending machines stocked with junk food was associated with obesity.
On the other hand, children who ate breakfast at school had lower body-mass indexes, on average, than peers who did not.
The researchers found that students who ate school-provided lunches got more energy-rich nutrients than their brown-bagging counterparts. That’s mostly because they were four times more likely to drink milk, rather than sugary juice drinks. Switching from whole milk to skim or low-fat milk, the report adds, is one way schools could make those lunches even more healthful.
A version of this article appeared in the February 11, 2009 edition of Education Week