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U.S. elementary schools see improvement in nutrition of school lunches

The percentage of U.S. elementary schools regularly offering healthy foods as part of school lunches increased significantly from the 2006-2007 to the 2013-2014 school year and the number of less healthy items offered decreased, according to a Boise State University study.

The study evaluated changes in school lunches from 4,630 public elementary schools participating in the National School Lunch Program. Overall, the changes were positive: the availability of vegetables, fresh fruit, salad bars, whole grains and more healthful pizzas increased, while the availability of high-fat milks, fried potatoes, and regular pizza decreased.

Researchers report that while lunches improved in health during the eight consecutive school years studied, disparities were evident in 2013-2014 school year. Schools in the West were significantly more likely to offer salad bars than were schools in the Northeast, Midwest, or South, and majority-black or majority-Latino schools were significantly less likely to offer fresh fruit than were predominantly white schools. Schools with low socioeconomic status were significantly less likely to offer salads regularly than were schools with middle or high socioeconomic status.

The study also reveals that, in the Midwest, the number of schools offering premade salads decreased; the number offering salad bars slightly increased. Schools in the South were more likely than other regions to offer premade salads and were less likely to offer salad bars.

“Although children cannot make healthful choices if none are available, simply offering more healthful items may be insufficient to change behavior,” researchers say. “In addition to changes in offerings, promotion and marketing interventions may be needed. Such interventions increased the consumption of whole grains and fruit and vegetables among students.”