With more than 31 million children eating National School Lunch Program lunches daily, researchers questioned if they were as good, better, or worse than lunches brought from home. According to a recent study, school lunches are significantly better—they have a higher nutrient value and are lower in saturated fats and calories.
“We’re concerned about nutrition in school-age children because it has such long-range effects on academic success and physical health,” said Ethan Bergman, Immediate Past President of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and nutrition sciences chair and professor at Central Washington University.
Under the auspices of the National Food Service Management Institute, Bergman devised a study that compared the quality of student lunches at four different Washington schools that had earned a HealthierUS Schools Challenge award. The study looked at more than 1,000 lunches from 560 students.
To accurately and efficiently estimate nutrients, CWU computer science students created a custom, computer database management program. A photo of each lunch was created both before and after the lunch was consumed, and the lunches were coded with a student identification number and a tray identification number. Students who brought lunches from home placed items of their lunch on a tray to be photographed.
The study found that school lunches provided more fresh fruit and vegetables, and children were more likely to drink milk when eating a school lunch.
“There were more processed foods in the lunches brought from home,” Bergman reported. “There was also less variety throughout the week.”
Bergman’s research also looked at socioeconomic status and other demographics. Although in all cases, lunches from home were substandard to school lunches, lunches brought from home in the schools that reflected a lower socioeconomic level were substantially less healthful.
“It really makes sense for students whose families have fewer resources to participate in the school lunch program,” he said. “The lunches are very inexpensive, or even free, depending on the family’s circumstances.”
Bergman would like to expand the study and evaluate school lunches on a national scale.
"We are seeking to improve the health of school-aged students through food and nutrition,” he said. “The data from the current study shows that the National School Lunch Program is doing a good job of optimizing the health of students. We need to conduct this same study using a nationally based sample of the student population."
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