Published: March 2021

Journal: Nutrients

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School meals are important contributors to the healthy diets of our nation’s children, especially those in food insecure households, according to new papers published in a special issue of the journal Nutrients. The papers address urgent policy challenges related to food security, childhood obesity, sugar consumption, and racial and ethnic disparities when it comes to healthy meals.

The 15 papers in the special issue use USDA data from the School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study (SNMCS), conducted by Mathematica. The SNMCS is the most comprehensive school nutrition study in the United States and the first nationally representative study to assess school meals after implementation of nutrition standards established by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010. The study collected data from over 1,200 schools, 2,000 students, and 500 school food authorities and provides a wealth of knowledge about school meals and the role they play in children’s health and well-being.

To build on the foundation of evidence set by the SNMCS, Healthy Eating Research commissioned the special issue to fill information gaps on how the school food environment influences children’s dietary behaviors and weight, and which changes hold the most promise for reducing childhood obesity, improving diet quality, and reducing food insecurity among school-age children. The papers shed additional light on the effects of these policies and implications for future action.

Learn more about each of the papers in the full Press Release

Special Journal Issue

A new special issue in the journal Nutrients includes 15 studies that provide important insights on the progress schools have made in promoting healthier school environments, based on data from USDA’s SNMCS. The special issue papers focus on school meals, school food environments, and school food policies. They examine disparities and associations related to weight status, food insecurity, and implications for promising strategies related to improving diet quality and reducing obesity disparities.

10 Key Findings on the Impact of School Nutrition Programs

This fact sheet presents 10 key findings from the SNMCS and studies published in the special issue. The findings cover a variety of school nutrition topics including school meals and snacks, the school food environment, school meal participation, and state and local policies including universal free meals.

The key findings fall into three main categories:

  1. The nutritional quality of most foods and beverages served and sold in schools has improved dramatically between the 2009-2010 and 2014-2015 school years.
  2. Schools with healthy meals provide a broad range of benefits to both schools and kids.
  3. Strong state and local policies can bolster the impact of national nutrition standards.

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