School meals are healthier today — but many still don’t meet U.S. nutrition standards

MEDFORD, Mass. — Today’s school lunches are actually much healthier than what older generations had to eat decades ago. Even so, recent data reveals that as many as one in four U.S. lunches still have poor nutritional quality. What can be done? Scientists at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University believe aligning student meals to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans could have a positive impact on hundreds of thousands of children as they mature into adults.

That doesn’t even take into account the added benefits associated with saving billions of dollars in lifetime medical costs, the team notes.

The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommend that American meals feature far less sugar and salt, and much more whole grains. The team at Tufts says ensuring school lunches all over the country follow these guidelines could benefit the health of countless children.

After modeling the national implementation of updated school lunch guidelines, researchers concluded that even incomplete compliance by schools would lead to overall reductions in both short and long-term health issues among participating students (K-12).

“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,” says senior author Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and Jean Mayer Professor of Nutrition at the Friedman School, in a university release. “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.”

school lunch
(Photo by Katerina Holmes from Pexels)

Study authors used a simulation model to derive a data-driven estimate of three changes to the school meal program. This included limiting percent of energy from added sugar to lower than 10 percent of total energy per meal, ensuring all grain foods are whole grain, and lowering sodium content to the Chronic Disease Risk Reduction amount for sodium intake in the 2020-2025 DGA.

Notably, over a third (35%) of these dietary changes likely continued into adulthood. If all schools fully complied with these new standards, it could potentially prevent more than 10,600 deaths per year due to fewer diet-related diseases and save over $19 billion annually in healthcare-related costs during later adulthood. The worst-case scenario, on the other hand, in which schools remained with their current food offerings, was estimated to only save a little over half as many lives and healthcare dollars.

Aligning school meals with the latest dietary guidelines for added sugars, sodium, and whole grains will also produce modest, but no less important, short-term health benefits for children. For instance, these lunch changes were estimated to reduce elementary and middle school students’ body mass index (BMI) by 0.14 and systolic blood pressure by 0.13 mm Hg. Benefits were about half as large among high school students, but that was likely because fewer older students eat school-provided meals.

“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,” adds 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.”

To be clear, these study’s findings are not capable of proving the outcomes they describe, but they are derived from a mathematical model based on the best available demographic and health data. As such, this work is especially timely given the United States Department of Agriculture’s recent commitment to update school meal nutrition standards to better align with the 2020-2025 dietary guidelines.

The cost, meanwhile, of fully implementing new school meal standards has yet to be determined. However, previous alignments suggest it would add at least another $1 billion nationally to the cost of these programs. That may sound like a lot, but it’s actually only about five percent of the total predicted annual long-term healthcare savings this change would likely yield.

The study is published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

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About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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