Photo courtesy of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural SciencesGAINESVILLE, Fla. — Federal school lunch guidelines enacted in 2012 are improving nutrition for school-age children and reducing childhood obesity, according to a new study co-authored by a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences faculty member.
UF/IFAS assistant professor of food and resource economics Jaclyn Kropp—along with economists at Georgia State University, Clemson University, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—worked with a county school food services director to develop a novel research model to study school lunch choices children make, combining lunch sales data collected at the cafeteria register with data on student absences.
They investigated how the nutritional content of National School Lunch Program entrées chosen by students varied across different socioeconomic and demographic groups and impacted their health.
When healthier menu items replaced less healthy items, researchers found the total calories of the students’ lunch choices decreased about 4 percent. Calories from fat decreased 18 percent, and those from sodium decreased by 8 percent.
“The key finding is that while students prefer less-healthy school lunch options, income constraints, particularly for those students receiving free and reduced-price meals, cause these students to continue participating in the school lunch program and, hence, these students consume healthier meals,” Kropp said.
Students more likely to participate in free- and reduced-price lunch programs are among the same populations most likely to suffer from obesity and related health risks, said Janet Peckham, an economist in the Office of the Commissioner at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and lead author of the study.
In another key finding, students who received free lunches were more likely to choose entrées with a higher fat content and less likely to select entrées with higher sodium content, the study showed. Students paying full price were more likely to reject entrées high in fat and choose those higher in sodium. They were also more responsive to increases in protein and more frequently replaced their cafeteria choices with lunches from home.
Nearly 32 million students are served more than 5 billion lunches in a school day in the United States. More than two-thirds of these meals are free- and reduced-price lunches that follow school lunch program guidelines. Federal school lunch program nutrition standards require greater availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and a reduction in saturated fats and sodium.
The study is published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.