Child lunch consumption patterns suggests Congress shouldn’t loosen nutritional standards

June 8, 2021

A third-grader punches in her student identification to pay for lunch at a school in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

Congress is working on child nutrition and school meal standards for the first time in nearly a decade, with a push to make permanent the COVID-era waivers that loosened school nutrition goals. But new research on the food consumption patterns of students at six Title I schools shows that the proposed rollbacks may not be a good idea.

The study, published May 22 in Health Education & Behavior, found that while most lunches that students selected met lunch recommendations, few students met the nutrition recommendations for six nutritional parameters based on actual consumption levels, suggesting that Congress shouldn't roll back nutritional standards; rather, Congress should keep or exceed the current standards. 

Every five years, Congress has the opportunity to review laws governing child nutrition standards and programs in order to improve and strengthen those programs. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was the last law passed on the matter. Though it officially expired in 2015, it continues to be the governing law on school nutrition standards since a new reauthorization hasn't been passed; administrative mandates — including establishing fruit, vegetable and whole-grain requirements, limiting calorie, sodium and saturated salts, and eliminating high-fat milk — continue to be the standard.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it the need for some flexibility, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture started providing waivers for nutritional standards and mealtimes, among other standards, in order to feed children during the pandemic. These waivers included meal pattern waivers that allowed schools to loosen some nutritional standards such as the fruit and vegetable requirement. 

Now, there are calls from some in Congress to keep up that flexibility and to allow schools to decide what ends up on children's plates, most pointedly by Sen. John Boozman, a Republican from Arkansas, who is a ranking member in the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, responsible for beginning the process to reauthorize federal child nutrition programs across the U.S. 

However, Elizabeth Adams and Melanie Bean, co-authors of the study from Virginia Commonwealth University, argue these rollbacks are a bad idea based on their research.

"We know that the schools serve a very important role in addressing food security and children," said Bean, an associate professor of pediatrics. "We also know that the majority of these children do rely on the schools for their meals. And historically, the same population tends to have less optimal nutritional intake, which is some of the drivers of these inequities regarding chronic illnesses — obesity and obesity-related diseases."

Adams and Bean examined students' lunch consumption patterns at six Title I schools in a district in central Virginia, focusing on first- through fifth-grade students who ranged from 6 to 12 years old. The district is comprised mostly of racial and ethnic minority students, and over 90% of the students at this district participate in the National School Lunch Program, providing these students with free meals.

The researchers took digital images of school lunch meals both before and after students consumed their lunch, with a total of 1,326 image pairs, representing pre- and post-consumption. A separate team of undergraduate student researchers analyzed the digital images to determine the amount of food consumed by the children.

These students had extensive training on visual assessment of foods and beverages captured in digital images using methods validated in previous studies. Both nutrient selection and consumption values were then calculated for each lunch meal using nutritional information and plate waste ratings data from the Nutrition Data Systems for Research software; these numbers underwent a statistical analysis thereafter. 

"Dietary intakes are notoriously challenging to quantify and notoriously inaccurate," said Adams, postdoctoral researcher. "And this is a real strength of the study. The way in which we quantify this is pretty rigorous."

The researchers found that most lunches that students selected met recommendations for all nutrients, including recommendations for sodium, protein, calories from fat and saturated fat. However, based on students' lunch consumption, few met the nutritional recommendations for total calories, calcium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C and fiber. 

These findings show that even in an under-resourced district, schools were able to meet the nutritional mandates, suggesting that schools don't actually need the flexibility or rollback of nutritional standards pushed by Boozman and others. 

Moreover, even though nutritional recommendations were met when students selected their lunch, consumption levels suggested students weren't actually getting all the recommended nutrients, which Bean and Adams argue shows the need for Congress to meet or exceed current nutritional standards. 

An important limitation of the study is that it's only a snapshot from one day of school lunch at six schools, and it didn't include what students might have eaten for breakfast or what snacks they brought from home, which could offset the nutritional parameters that weren't met at lunch. 

However, given that the participating students are exactly those at greater risk for chronic diseases like obesity and given that these meals constitute a large portion of children's daily energy intake often not met outside school, the researchers say these findings reinforce the need for additional efforts to increase children's consumption of key nutrients in their lunch meals.

"I think this is just a real opportunity," Bean said. "Especially on the heels right now of our time in history to set an even higher bar for schools … I think the time is really now to make sure that the schools are continuing to do the fantastic job that they do with feeding children, and that we make the standards aspirational and not roll them back."

The study "Nutrient intake during school lunch in Title I elementary schools with universal free meals," published May 22 in Health Education & Behavior, was co-authored by Elizabeth L. Adams, Melanie K. Bean, and Suzanne E. Mazzeo, Virginia Commonwealth University; Hollie A. Raynor, University of Tennessee; and Laura M. Thornton, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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