School lunch programs have been criticized for providing too few fruits and vegetables and too much sugar and fat. But is this criticism fair? While school lunch programs could undoubtedly be better, you may be surprised to hear that they are a vast improvement over most sack lunches. So says a new analysis led by Craig Johnston of the Baylor College of Medicine.
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) provides free lunches to qualifying school children (more affluent children can buy the same meals). The NSLP has specific guidelines and policies to which it must adhere. These policies are based on Dietary Guidelines for Americans and include limits on total calories as well as on specific foods such as sugar-sweetened drinks or salty snacks. Needless to say, any similar limits on lunches prepared at home are strictly voluntary.
Second-graders from seven elementary schools in southeast Texas participated in the study. Roughly one quarter of the students belonged to each of the following demographics: white, black, Asian and Hispanic. About a third of the kids qualified for free or reduced price lunches. On three random days, trained observers recorded everything the kids had for lunch.
Across the board, lunches obtained from the school were more nutritious than lunches prepared at home. The school lunches were far more likely to include fruits and vegetables and less likely to include sugary or fatty snacks. When questioned, parents commonly stated that they provided foods they knew their kids would actually eat, rather than items that would most likely be discarded.
This brings us to the biggest caveat of the study. Researchers were only noting what foods the kids received, not what they actually ate. However, there is still reason to think the study is valid. For one thing, the school lunches were not prepackaged in any way and kids were free to choose what to put on their trays. Most children will at least taste something they willingly select. For another, although kids might not eat the vegetable they put on their tray, they definitely won’t drink the sugary beverage that isn’t even an option. By providing healthy options, you can almost guarantee that children will get some nutrition out of their meals.
Fruits, vegetables and salads provided by NSLP to Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia on 10/19/2011.
USDA photo by Bob Nichols.