Healthy Meals May Be Offered at Schools—but Students Might Not Be Eating Them

Healthy meal at schoolHealthy meals and school lunches are being looked at in a lot more detail.

The CDC’s most recent issue of the journal Preventing Chronic Diseases contains a study measuring healthy meals in school lunches from 2006 through to 2014.

It found a marked increase in healthy items and a consistent decline in certain unhealthy ones, which will come as a sign of encouragement to anyone worried about childhood health or obesity. Unfortunately, celebration will need to be restrained since the study’s inherent limitations and some questionable approaches in methodology make it hard to gauge the actual impact of these trends.

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The Healthy Meals Study: In Brief

  • Data was drawn from 4,630 public elementary schools in the National School Lunch Program.
  • Questionnaires were issued to assess how common certain healthy meals and unhealthy foods were present in school lunches that were not served a-la carte.
  • Data covered every school year from 2006 to 2014.
  • With the exception of salads, every healthy option showed a steady increase in how often it was offered and each unhealthy option showed a decrease in offering frequency.

The salad discrepancy resulted in a closer look by the researchers. They found that the rates of premade salads being offered did not change much, aside from a roughly 10% drop in the Midwest and slight (5%) increase in the Northeast and South. However, the rate of salad bars rose across the board during this same period, with the biggest increase in the South (a little over 20% increase). When parsing for socioeconomic status (SES) and racial makeup, low SES schools had lower access to salad compared to mid-to-high SES schools.

The biggest improvement in the frequency of healthy meals and foods was found in whole grains. The amount of schools that offered whole grains was at 14.6% in the 2006-2007 year but rose steadily and became 48.6% in 2013-2014. The largest decrease in less healthy meals and items came from high fat (2% or whole) milk, which dropped from 78.3% in 2006-2007 to 29% in 2013-2014.

Actual Frequency of Healthy Meals Hard to Assess

As described in the methodology, there were some issues with the data that may cloud the exact frequency of how often the healthy items are actually offered. The surveys used values like “some days, most days, every day, never, and rarely” and some values saw the some/most/every responses combined to create the final percentages. The imprecise nature of these statements and the merging make it hard to know just how frequently or infrequently the healthy items were offered beyond the fact that the rate definitely did go up.

Unable To Determine Impact on Children

This last point is not actually the fault of the study. The researchers were clear that they were inspecting the healthfulness of school lunches and they accomplished that goal quite well. However, how these lunches impacted student health is a separate matter that was beyond the scope of the study. In other words, just because students were being offered healthier school lunches does not necessarily mean they were actually eating healthier school lunches.

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Since the study did not look at a-la-carte school lunches, it can’t attempt to estimate how much of what students are given was actually consumed. However, this is a matter for another study to deal with. For now, these schools should be congratulated for their improvements in making healthy options available to growing minds and bodies.

Source for Today’s Article:
Turney, L., et. al. “Improvements and Disparities in Types of Foods and Milk Beverages Offered in Elementary School Lunches, 2006–2007 to 2013–2014,” 2016; Preventing Chronic Disease, http://dx.doi.org/10.5888/pcd13.150395.