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School Lunches Are Healthier than Packed Lunches


A new study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior concludes that National School Lunch Program (NSLP) meals are healthier for students than means brought from home.

“Overall we found that packed lunches were of less nutritional quality than school lunches, and students who were bringing packed lunches were being offered significantly more foods that contained solid fats, added sugars, and were also bringing significantly more sugar-sweetened beverages,” explains Dr. Alisha Farris, the study’s lead author.

Approximately 60 percent of students participate in the NSLP, and the other 40 percent bring their lunch from home. While school lunches are required to meet nutrition guideline set by the 2010 Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act, lunches brought from home are not.

The researchers looked at a total of 1,314 school and packed lunches from three elementary schools in rural Virginia, and analyzed their contents for nutrients and food groups by visiting the lunchrooms to see what children were eating.

Visiting the lunchrooms in person was a better option for the study than basing their analysis on lunch menus because as Dr. Farris explains, “The schools we observed, like I would say many schools in the U.S., have more than one option for lunch entrees, fruit, vegetables, dairy―so we wanted to really compare against what was being chosen by children instead of what was being reflected on the menu.”

The researchers found that packed lunches were less likely to contain fruits, vegetables, milk and no-sugar-added juice than school lunches. Additionally, they included more snacks such as chips and crackers, as well as more sugar-sweetened beverages. And though many lunches brought from home included desserts like chocolate bars or candy, school lunches did not provide such options to students.

These findings suggest that packed lunches may allow kids to consume more fat and sugar than they otherwise would, and the authors conclude that could lead to an increased caloric intake, higher body mass and, ultimately, childhood obesity.

While the team did observe many well-packed lunches, Dr. Farris notes that, “Many parents are choosing even more convenience – individually pre-packaged, all-in-one items that can be simply thrown in a box and ready to go.” She continues, “I think many parents are choosing quantity of food over quality of food, and this is because they simply want their child to eat something and are therefore compromising on nutrition.”

This study, possibly the first of its kind since the new lunch standards were put in place, supports previous research that also suggested that packed lunches were less healthy than school lunches, as well as research that suggests that students who participate school lunch programs consume less sugar-sweetened beverages than non-participants.

Dr. Farris feels this research is important because it “highlights what we are feeding our youngest of children while they still only have minimal say in what we’re feeding them,” and she fears “it only gets worse from here.”

However, she notes that there are small changes that could have a large impact on the overall nutrition of packed lunches, such as substituting water for other beverages or fruit for a dessert and always trying to provide fresh produce in the lunch. “Even one of these changes would improve the nutrition of a packed lunch and would be a great place to start,” she says.

The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior also created a podcast interview with Dr.  Farris, which you can listen to here.

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