Why Nutrition Standards for School Provided Meals Matter

by Mary Takgbajouah

Mary Takgbajouah is an incoming first year doctoral student in DePaul University’s clinical child psychology program and a CEED Summer Fellow

The National School Lunch Program provides free or reduced-cost meals to more than 30 million children a day across the United States. It is an essential source of nutrition for vulnerable students, including students from low socioeconomic statuses and students of color. Generally, due to systemic oppression, children from these marginalized groups consume fewer nutrient dense foods, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and more processed foods high in sodium, added sugar, refined grains, and saturated fat. These consumption patterns have the potential to lead to nutritional deficiencies and a multitude of negative health outcomes, such as increased risk for cardiovascular disease, cancers, and obesity, and obesity-related illnesses. For these reasons, it is important that school-provided meals are nutritious as they make up a substantial percentage of daily food intake for children, especially for children from marginalized, vulnerable groups.

Nutritious school lunches promote health

In 2012, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) attempted to increase the nutritional value of school-provided meals by implementing calorie, sodium, and saturated fat maximums; fruit, vegetable, and whole grain minimums; and removing high fat milk entirely. However, recently the whole grain minimum was rolled back by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and additional rollbacks are being considered. This is alarming because current research has shown that even with the meal standards implemented in 2012, children’s actual consumption does not meet nutrition recommendations.

A study published this year on food selection and consumption in six Title I elementary schools examined student’s selection and consumption of school lunch to determine if the recommended HHFKA nutrition standards are being met. More than 90% of the students participating in the study were students of color, and more than 85% were participants in the National School Lunch Program.

Results from the study showed that while on average the food the students selected met recommended nutrition standards, with the exception of the dietary fiber guideline, the food students actually consumed did not meet those standards. Although students met recommendations for percentage of calories from fat, saturated fat, sodium, and protein, student’s average consumption did not meet recommendations for total calories consumed, calcium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, or dietary fiber.

In sum, though children are selecting foods that meet the recommended nutrition standards, they are not consuming the nutrient dense portions of the meals they select. Nutrition consumption at school is important because school-provided meals can account for more than half of a child’s daily intake. Additionally, there are typically not as many options for healthy consumption outside of school, especially for children from marginalized backgrounds. Rolling back nutrition standards for school-provided meals would likely lead to even less consumption of recommended essential nutrients, which has the potential to lead to malnutrition and associated health complications. Because of this, rather than rolling back school lunch guidelines, efforts should focus on exploring ways to increase children’s consumption of the already offered nutrient dense food options.

Adams, E. L., Raynor, H. A., Thornton, L. M., Mazzeo, S. E., & Bean, M. K. (2021). Nutrient Intake During School Lunch in Title I Elementary Schools with Universal Free Meals. Health, Education & Behavior, 10901981211011936. Advance online publication.https://doi.org/10.1177/10901981211011936