A study published Nov. 24 in JAMA pediatrics found the nutritional quality of school lunches brought from home was significantly lower than the standards set by the National School Lunch Program guidelines, which Congress overhauled in 2010 with the passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
The new guidelines apply to school provided lunches and include minimum and maximum calorie allowances, increased servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, increased vegetable variety and the gradual reduction in sodium content beginning in 2012. The goal of the overhaul partly was to reduce the obesity epidemic by better controlling what children eat and teaching them about more healthful food options.
“While the new regulations changed National School Lunch Program (NSLP) meals, they did not address foods brought in lunches from home,” and the discrepancy is apparent in the quality of food from each source with lunches from home comparing unfavorably to those provided by schools, according to researchers in Texas who discovered the disparity after analyzing the nutrient and food group content of the lunches brought from home by children at 12 schools in one Houston, Texas, area school district.
Observations of the meals that 337 children brought to school over the course of two months in late 2011 revealed home lunches contained more sodium, fewer servings of vegetables and fat-free or 1% milk thank school-provided lunch.
Specifically, home packed lunches included an average of 1,003 mg of sodium compared to the maximum of 710 mg allowed in school lunches. Likewise, lunches from home include an average of only 0.07 cups of vegetables daily compared to the 0.75 cups daily required by school lunches.
There was no significant different between the amount of fruit and whole grains served in each lunch, but 90% of lunches from home included desserts, snack chips and sweetened beverages, which are not permitted in school meals, according to the study, conducted by Michelle Caruso, program manager at Houston Department of Health and Human Services, and Karen Cullen, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
Not surprisingly, children ate nearly all of the chips, desserts and sweetened beverages packed in their lunches from home, but only ate about 75% of the already meager servings of vegetables they brought, according to the study.
These results mirror those of similar studies comparing lunches from home and school that were conducted previously. They found lunches from home provided more carbohydrates, total fat and sugar than school lunches.
Reflecting on the findings, researchers said: “It is unclear whether more rigorous NSLP guidelines could have any effect on the cost or quality of lunches brought from home.”
They also note foods from home could be a contributing factor to a child’s overweight status.
The study authors suggest parent or guardian knowledge and attitudes about packed lunches and their understanding of nutritional requirements should be evaluated to determine how best to improve the quality of school lunches.
An unrelated study found educating parents and children at a daycare who bring their lunch from home about nutrition can result in more vegetables and whole grains being packed compared to parents in a control group who were not educated about nutrition.
A “clear focus on increased servings and variety of vegetables, whole fruit (not just juice), whole grains and non-fat or low-fat milk has the potential to fundamentally change the diet quality and food variety of school-aged children,” Virginia Stallings, a medical doctor at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, writes in an editorial that accompanied the study in JAMA Pediatrics.
She notes schools, parents and students should work together to develop and share best practices about healthful eating behavior and improved diet quality.
“Change is hard, but the new school food environment will support child health,” and eating healthy food will help them be ready to learn, Stallings said.
She added lessons about healthful foods in the classroom and cafeteria “are the foundation on which students establish food preferences and behaviors that contribute to life-long health outcomes.”