The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, provides support for efforts to implement strong national nutrition standards for all food sold at school while promoting student participation in the National School Lunch Program.
Federal meal programs, including the National School Lunch Program, provide an opportunity to improve young people’s diets. Previous research shows that the sale of snacks in schools outside the school meal programs, known as competitive foods, have been linked with unhealthy diet and increased risk of obesity. In response, Congress passed The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which gives the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) authority to set nutrition standards for competitive foods sold throughout the school day for the first time ever. The USDA is still currently developing these standards.
Researchers analyzed six years of school lunch data from more than 900 public schools in Connecticut. The state began encouraging local school districts to meet stronger nutrition standards for school snacks in the 2006-2007 school year.
Researchers found that districts adopting these stricter standards saw 7% to 23% increases in middle and high school lunch participation and a slight decrease in elementary school lunch participation, compared to districts in the state that did not adopt stricter competitive food nutrition standards. In addition, researchers estimated that adopting the new standards resulted in roughly $30,000 in new revenue for an average district in the 2011-2012 school year.
“Connecticut’s experience demonstrates that protecting children’s health through stronger national competitive food standards is a winning solution for children, parents, and local districts,” said senior author Kathryn Henderson, director of school and community initiatives at the Rudd Center. “Getting unhealthy foods out of schools and bringing more children to the lunch table will help build broader support for continued improvement of school meal programs.”
“The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act has made great strides in improving the nutritional quality of school meals across the country, but these improvements will only matter if students participate in the meal program,” said lead author Michael Long of the Harvard School of Public Health.
The study was funded by the Rudd Foundation, the Barry R. and Irene Telenius Bloom Fellowship, and the Bernard and Gloria Salick Fellowship.
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