Are schools the healthiest places to eat in America?

A recent study from researchers at Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University grabbed headlines across the country. Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the school and senior researcher on the study, was repeatedly quoted as saying “Schools are now the single healthiest place Americans are eating.” Complete results are available in the article Trends in Food Sources and Diet Quality Among US Children and Adults, 2003-2018 from JAMA Open Network.

When RDN colleague, Cara Rosenbloom asked me to comment on the article, I jumped at the chance. This study (and the resulting media attention) is one more important way to share just how essential school meals are for the health of our country. You can read Cara’s excellent summary on verywellfit at Analysis of American Diet Finds School Meals Most Nutritious, including several quotes from me. It is also the purpose of 20+ blog posts where I have interviewed school nutrition leaders about their experiences during COVID-19.

Article by Cara Rosenbloom, RD

Here are my complete answers to the questions that she asked me.

Cara: In the research, it says that “the largest improvement in diet quality was in schools, with the percentage with poor diet quality decreasing from 55.6% to 24.4%, mostly after 2010, and with equitable improvements across population subgroups.” Can you comment on what changed after 2010 to account for this improvement?

Dayle: The major changes after 2010 relate to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFK) passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama. The USDA website summarizes it well: Improving child nutrition is the focal point of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The legislation authorized funding and set policy for USDA’s core child nutrition programs: the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children , the Summer Food Service Program, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act allowed USDA, for the first time in over 30 years, opportunity to make real reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs by improving the critical nutrition and hunger safety net for millions of children. Over the decade since the HHFK was enacted, several other changes have led to improvements in school meals. Briefly these include:

  • Increased funding and dramatic expansion of Farm to School programs (including school gardens and actual school farms) across the US. For details and data, visit the USDA Farm to School website.
Burlington (Vermont) School Food Project serves as many local foods as possible
  • Increased focus on culinary training for school nutrition professionals and school chefs becoming more and more common. These efforts are supported by USDA Team Nutrition training grants and by 3rd party groups, often with industry support. An excellent example is the Healthy Kids Collaborative convened by the Culinary Institute of America.

Cara: Can you describe what children may be given as a typical school lunch? Which particular foods/nutrients may account for it being “healthy?” And how did that change from pre-2010?

Dayle: A typical school lunch includes whole grains, lean proteins and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Serving sizes and sodium levels are specified by age group. More details can be found in the 2018 Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior, and School Nutrition Association:Comprehensive Nutrition Programs and Services in Schools and the accompanying Practice Paper. 

Madison County, Kentucky, meals at school and curbside grab-n-go

Within the USDA guidelines and regulations, there is lots of delicious flexibility for schools to offer meals that appeal to students, introducing them to new flavors while respecting cultural traditions and food preferences. Since pictures are worth thousands of words, I invite you to scroll through the photos on TIPS for Schools Meals That Rock, a Facebook group of 16,800 members. Unfortunately the perception of school meals today still relies on some very old tropes of monochrome processed entrees with canned fruits and veggies. Today even the canned products have been reformulated. 

Cara:

Cars: How has COVID-19 affected school lunches? Are they still being distributed? Are they still nutritious?

Dayle: COVID-19 has affected school meals just like it has affected every aspect of our lives! The really good news is that school nutrition programs have been serving meals for children (and sometimes families too) often with 24 hours of school closures last March 2020. 

School nutrition professionals have been true heroes during the pandemic – making certain that children were fed even if it meant putting themselves at risk. The meals, meal kits and meal boxes that they have served – through heat, cold, snow and rain – have been an actual lifeline to families everywhere in the USA. 

Many thanks to the school nutrition staff in Carson City, Nevada

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