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Schools Benefiting from Healthier Meals


Schools began implementing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) nutrition standards for school meals in the fall of 2012, bringing healthier school meals to kids across the country. Now, a new study from Bridging the Gap shows that school lunches in U.S. secondary schools are getting healthier and that healthy meals are reaching more diverse schools. 

The study, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, found that significantly more students attended schools with healthy lunches during the first year that national standards for school meals were implemented than just two years prior. Before the standards, students in predominantly white and large schools were much more likely than those in diverse or small schools to have access to healthier lunches. After implementation, however, disparities apparent in school nutrition environments decreased considerably. 

To determine the impact of the national standards, researchers examined nationwide trends in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) in public middle and high schools from 2011 to 2013 – before and after implementation of school lunch nutrition standards. Among middle schoolers, researchers found that 80 percent of kids attended a school that offered non-fat milk every day, compared to 72 percent in 2010-2011. Additionally, 70 percent attended a school offering whole grains every day, a significant increase from the 51 percent before the standards. For high school students, the study showed that in 2013, 73 percent of kids attended a school offering whole grains every day, an increase from the 62 percent who did during the 2010-2011 school year. And a whopping 87 percent had access to both fruits and vegetables each day compared to 78 percent two years before. 

The researchers also found clear initial differences based on the racial or ethnic makeup of the student body and school size. For example, in 2010-2011, the odds of having both fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains available daily was 2.4 and 2.3 times higher, respectively, for kids in predominantly white middle schools than in more diverse schools. Children in large middle schools (more than 1,000 students) were 3.4 times more likely to have daily access to non-fat milk than those in small middle schools (500 students or fewer). At the high school level, students attending predominantly white schools were almost twice as likely to have access to whole grains each day compared to those at more diverse schools. And the odds of having both fruits and vegetables every day were 3.6 times higher for students in large high schools than for those in small schools. By 2013, however, these differences shrank considerably. 

“School meals are getting healthier, and we found a marked improvement in the year immediately following the roll out of USDA’s updated standards,” said Yvonne Terry-McElrath, a research associate at the University of Michigan who works with Bridging the Gap, a research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “Some states and school districts have been working to offer healthier meals for years – our study shows that the national standards support those efforts and may be helping to close gaps that were leaving many students without access to nutritious school meals.”  

It is clear that nutrition standards for school meals are working. Because of these standards, meaningful improvements have been made in the nutritional content of meals offered to students which, in turn, has helped reduce school meal disparities. Schools will need continued support in order to continue improving the nutrition environments for students across the country.  

To check out the abstract of the study, click here. To view the press release issues by Bridging the Gap, click here.