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To Pack or Purchase? Nutritionally, School-Provided Meals are Best

Author, Matthew Good, M.S., R.D., L.D.
Another school year is upon us, and parents are left pondering the age-old question; “Should I pack my child’s lunch or let them purchase one?” When looking at the nutritional content of food, school-provided meals win, hands down.
At least, that’s what was found in a recent study from the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. From 2003 to 2018, researchers evaluated the nutritional quality of foods (meals, snacks, and beverages) purchased in the United States from four source groups; (1) grocery stores, (2) restaurants, (3) K through 12 cafeterias and childcare centers for children, or worksites for adults, and (4) other.

How was the study done?

The researchers analyzed self-reported food recall data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The nutritional quality of food was then rated using the American Heart Association (AHA) Diet Score and the Healthy Eating Index (HEI)-2015. Based on those scores, the mean diet quality of food from the four source groups was categorized as a “poor diet,” intermediate diet,” or “ideal diet.” In total, the study analyzed the diets of about 21,000 children.

What, exactly, did the study find?

In 2003, the earliest examined year of the study, a staggering proportion of “poor” nutritional quality food was consumed from restaurants at 85%, grocery stores at 53%, and schools at 57%. By 2018, modest improvements were cited in restaurants and grocery stores, reducing from 85% to 80% and 53% to 45%, respectively. The proportion of “poor” nutritional quality food from schools was reduced by more than half, from 57% to 24%, an astonishing improvement and admirable overall rating.

Why have school meals improved so dramatically?

Across the study, the most significant improvement appears in 2010, which coincides with the federal passing of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which aggressively regulated the nutrition standards of schools and early childcare.
“The nutritional improvements in foods obtained at school came from kids eating more of what’s good for them, such as whole grains, total fruits, greens and beans, and less of what’s harmful, such as sugary drinks, refined grains, and foods with added sugar,” said first author Junxiu Liu, assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “These were the specific targets of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.”

But couldn’t I just buy healthier foods from the grocery store?

Of course, certain foods can be purchased from a grocery store that are equally, if not more nutritionally adequate, than those provided at schools. The sad truth uncovered in this study is that Americans simply don’t buy them or pack them into our children’s lunches.
Another disturbing fact is that not every household’s grocery budget is the same. This study highlights a significant disparity in diet quality across sex, race/ethnicity, educational level of parents, and household income with food purchased at grocery stores. These disparities don’t seem to be of impact when consuming school meals.

So what’s the final verdict?

The empirical evidence in this study soundly supports that food consumed from school-provided meals is nutritionally superior to food brought home. In fact, according to Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School and the study’s senior author, “Schools are now the single healthiest place Americans are eating.”

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