Strict school lunch standards may improve obesity rates

April 10, 2013

A study published in JAMA Pediatrics shows that strict school lunch standards that are similar to new regulations from the U.S. government may be tied to healthier body weights among students.

The new findings bode well for the standards introduced by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) in January 2012 that—among other moves—set maximums for calories offered during lunch and mandate that only skim or reduced-fat milk are offered to students. Prior to 2012, the USDA only set minimum calorie counts for school lunches. Now, the agency requires school lunches to fall between 550 and 850 calories—depending on a child’s grade level.

Previous studies questioned whether the USDA’s National School Lunch Program, which provides free or reduced-priced meals to low-income students, helped children maintain a healthy weight. Research also found the lunches sometimes didn’t meet standards and students who ate those meals tended to be obese.

For the study, the researchers compared the gap in obesity prevalence between students in states with strict lunch standards in 2006 and 2007—before the new regulations took place—to states with less restrictive regulations. Fewer than 10 states exceeded the USDA’s standards back then. The states could do that in a variety of ways. For example, they could have increased the amount of fruits and vegetables available to students or mandated schools only offer skim or low-fat milk.

Overall, the researchers found students who received free or reduced-price lunches were more obese than students who did not take part in the USDA program, but the gap in obesity prevalence was much smaller in states with strict lunch standards. In states that did not exceed the standards, 26% of students in the lunch program were considered obese, compared to about 14% of students who did not get free or reduced-price lunches. That compared to about 21% of students in the lunch program and about 17% of students who weren’t in the program in states that exceeded the standards.

What’s more, the researchers also found that students in states with strict lunch standards did not seem to compensate with less-healthy food from vending machines or other places.