January 19, 2016
2 min read

Legislation successfully improves nutritional value of school meals

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The nutritional value of student meal choices was improved after the implementation of the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, according to recent research in JAMA Pediatrics.

“This study aimed to assess changes in nutrient quality of school meals chosen by students before and after implementation of new meal standards authorized through the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010,” Donna B. Johnson, PhD, professor of health services at the center for public health nutrition at the University of Washington, and colleagues wrote. “We found that the implementation of the new meal standards was associated with the improved nutritional quality of meals selected by students.”

The researchers analyzed the nutritional quality of 1.7 million school meals from three middle schools and three high schools in Washington from January 2011 through January 2014. Of the 7,200 students enrolled in the participating schools, 54% were eligible for free or reduced-price meals. The researchers collected student meal choice data daily, before and after the implementation of the 2010 legislation (HHFKA) that took effect for the 2012-2013 school year.

Study results showed that after the HHFKA was enacted, student selection of nutritional foods significantly improved. The adequacy ratio of nutrient density increased from a mean of 58.7 (49.6-63.1) before the HHFKA, to 75.6 (68.7-88.1) after the act was implemented. Conversely, the mean energy density of meal selection decreased from 1.65 (1.53-1.82) to 1.44 (1.29-1.61).

The researchers also wrote that meal participation decreased modestly from 47% before the HHFKA to 46% after the changes.

“These results contribute to the evidence that significant improvement in the nutrition environments in schools is associated with the enactment and implementation of the new U.S. Department of Agriculture meal standards, with corresponding improvement of student selection of nutritious foods, without negatively affecting meal participation,” Johnson and colleagues wrote.

In an accompanying editorial, Erin R. Hager, PhD, of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and Lindsey Turner, PhD, of the College of Education at Boise State University, supported the researchers for rigorously and independently evaluating the impact of this health policy.

“The study by Johnson and colleagues adds to a growing and substantial amount of empirical evidence showing that school meal changes from the HHFKA have resulted in significant, valuable, and effective changes in not only the food environment but also in student behavior and health outcomes,” Hager and Turner wrote. “We encourage policymakers to consider the hard evidence rather than anecdotal reports when evaluating the impact of policy changes.” – by David Costill

Disclosure: The researchers report no relevant financial disclosures.