Children spend a significant chunk of their day in school, eating up to two major meals of the day away from home. With lunch time universal in school children, researchers took up the challenge of assessing whether home lunches or those provided by school cafeterias are healthier for kids.
Two studies, one from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and another from the Baylor College of Medicine, revealed that neither bringing a packed lunch from home nor opting for cafeteria food is actually healthy. The Hopkins study involved six- to eight-year-olds while the Baylor study had subjects from kindergarten to eighth grade, but both led to the same results, unfortunately highlighting problems with the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
A reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed in 2010 by Congress to include new provisions that would raise the standards for government-subsidized lunches. Across the country, this meant remarkable changes in school lunches to incorporate increased servings of whole grains, fruits and vegetables as well as higher calorie counts.
Presented at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association, the Hopkins study revealed that out of 274 students eating school lunches, only 59 percent opted for vegetable while 58 percent went with fruit. And out of those who got vegetables, only 24 percent actually ate what they got.
However, children were likelier to eat healthier school lunches when the cafeteria is quiet, food is cut up in smaller pieces, lunch periods are longer and teachers eat lunch in the same cafeteria.
"We saw a big jump in consumption if these factors were controlled, and they aren't expensive things to control for," said Susan Gross, a dietician and nutritionist who led the Hopkins study.
As for the Baylor study, researchers found that out of 337 student lunches, those brought from home were likely to contain nearly double the sodium level allowed on school lunches. Home-packed lunches also had 88 percent less vegetables and 40 percent fewer fruit and mostly included desserts and sweet beverages that are not offered through school lunches. Despite the low nutrition value, children who brought home-packed meals were likelier to eat them entirely.
"Lunches brought from home compared unfavorably with current NSLP guidelines. Strategies are needed to improve the nutritional quality of lunches brought from home," concluded researchers from Baylor.
In 2013, the National School Lunch Program provided 5.1 billion midday meals while 2.2 billion meals were served as part of the School Breakfast Program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is in-charge of the lunch program, working with over 100,000 nonprofit private and public schools and child-care facilities. For meeting meal requirements, participating schools receive food and subsidies from the USDA.