Why is it important to align school meals with nutrition standards?

Posted: 1 August 2023 | | No comments yet

A study has found that if school meals in the US were aligned to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, children’s wellbeing would be “further supported”.

students getting school lunch

A study carried out by the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy researchers has found that fully synchronising school meals with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 could positively impact hundreds of thousands of children into their adulthood.

The study has also claimed that this move would allow “billions” to be lifetime medical costs.

Though the researchers have said that the school meals of today are “much healthier than they were for the parents of American kids”, they found that one in four meals are of poor nutritional quality.

The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), in place for 2020-2025, call for meals with less sugar and salt and more whole grains.

Published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the study modelled the national implementation of updated school lunch guidelines in the US, with the research team finding that even incomplete compliance by schools “would lead to overall reductions in short and long-term health issues for participating K-12 students”.

“On average, school meals are healthier than the food American children consume from any other source including at home, but we’re at a critical time to further strengthen their nutrition,” said Senior Author Dariush Mozaffarian, a Cardiologist and Jean Mayer, Professor of Nutrition at the Friedman School.

All primary school children in London to receive free school meals

“Our findings suggest a real positive impact on long-term health and healthcare costs with even modest updates to the current school meal nutrition standards.”

To carry out the study the researchers used a simulation model to derive a data-driven estimate of three changes to the school meal programme, including limiting percent of energy from added sugar to lower than 10 percent of total energy per meal, requiring all grain foods to be whole grain, and lowering sodium content to the Chronic Disease Risk Reduction amount for sodium intake in the 2020-2025 DGA.

Results found that 35 percent of these dietary changes were estimated to continue into adulthood. What’s more, the researchers said that if all schools fully complied with the new standards, these were estimated to prevent more than 10,600 deaths per year due to fewer diet-related diseases, saving over $19 billion annually in healthcare-related costs during later adulthood.

“The worst-case estimate, in which schools remained with their current food offerings, saved a little over half as many lives and healthcare dollars,” found the researchers.

Looking at short term health benefits, the researchers found that by aligning school meals to new dietary guidelines for added sugars, sodium, and whole grains, there would be “modest, but important, short-term health benefits for children”.

“Using a comparative risk assessment model, our estimations are based on the best available, nationally representative data on children and adults and the best available evidence on how dietary changes in childhood relate to BMI and blood pressure, how dietary changes persist into adulthood, and how diet influences disease in adulthood,” explained First Author Lu Wang, a postdoctoral fellow at the Friedman School.

“Our new results indicate that even small changes to strengthen school nutrition policies can help students live longer, healthier lives.”

The researchers explain that the results of the study are timely as they come at a point where the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) recently committed to updating the school meal nutrition standards to align with the 2020-2025 dietary guidelines.

“The price to fully implement new school meal standards is yet to be determined, but previous alignments suggest it would add at least another $1 billion nationally to the cost of these programs, or only about five percent of the total predicted annual long-term healthcare savings this change would yield,” concluded the research team.