US School Meals Are Healthier, Is That about to Change?

03 March 2020

Meals served to schoolchildren in the United States are healthier because of changes to nutrition requirements, a recent U.S. study suggests.

The nutrition requirements started during the 2012-2013 school year.

Since then, breakfasts and lunches served at schools now follow guidelines designed to help fight obesity and other problems linked to poor diets. Schools have been sure to include larger amounts of fruits and vegetables in ones that are lower in sodium.

Old school lunches were higher in calories and fat. They also included larger amounts of sugar and fewer whole grains.

However, new rules proposed by the administration of President Donald Trump could loosen some of those requirements, which were put in place by former President Barack Obama.

Study findings

Nearly 100,000 schools and institutions feed 30 million children each school day through the school meals programs.

The study, released earlier this year, found that school meals had gotten healthier. It also found that more children ate the new school meals, and those who brought their lunch from home generally had healthier food than they did before.

The researchers published the report in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Elizabeth Gearan is with Mathematica, a policy research group in Princeton, New Jersey. She was a co-writer of the study.

She told Reuters news agency, "Encouraging children to consume school meals during the school year is an important step in improving children's diets." Gearan added that it is also important to help children to establish a healthy way of eating. Healthier school meals can help them do that.

Students eating breakfast in class
Students eating breakfast in class

In the study, researchers examined one week of school breakfast and lunch menus from over 800 schools before the 2012 nutrition guidelines took effect. They also looked at one week of menus from more than 1,000 schools in 2014.

Their findings showed that the healthy-eating-index scores rose after the new guidelines took effect. The index is a measure that gives points for things like whole foods. It takes away points for empty calories, sugars and fats.

Lunch scores climbed from 58 percent of the most points before the guidelines took effect, to 82 percent after. Breakfast scores moved up from 50 percent to 70 percent of the most possible points.

One limitation of the study is that researchers looked only at changes in the menus. They did not look at how much of the meals the children actually ate before and after the changes. However, Gearan said that other research suggests food waste does not change much when the menus change.

Sonny Perdue is the Secretary of Agriculture under Trump. In January, he announced proposals to loosen the food rules and let schools have more of a choice in what they serve their students.

Perdue said that schools "continue to tell us that there is still too much food waste," and that flexibility is "needed" to provide meals that students want to eat.

"We listened and now we're getting to work," Perdue said in a statement.

One of the changes includes permitting students to take only what they want to eat. Some observers say that children throw away too much food because they do not like what they are served.

Critics of the proposal say this is likely to mean students will choose less healthy foods.

The new rules are open for public comments until the end of March. There is no set time for when the proposed rules would be put in place.

Marlene Schwartz is director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut in Hartford. She was co-writer of an editorial published with the study.

She told Reuters that the proposed changes by the U.S. Department of Agriculture "are a step in the absolute wrong direction."

She said they "are taking away the incentive for the industry to invest in creating healthier products for schools."

I'm Anne Ball.

And I'm Bryan Lynn.

Lisa Rapaport wrote this story for Reuters. Anne Ball wrote this story for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

What kind of foods do schoolchildren eat in your country? What do you think of this story? Write to us in the comments section below.


Words in This Story

guideline - n. a rule or instruction that shows or tells how something should be done — usually plural

encourage – v. to make (something) more appealing or more likely to happen

consume – v. to eat or drink something

menu – n. the foods that are served at a meal

index – n. a sign or number that shows how something is changing or performing

editorial – n. an essay in a newspaper or magazine that gives the opinions of the editors or publishers

absolute – adj. complete and total—always used before a noun

incentive – n. something that encourages a person to do something or to work harder