School meals are far from perfectly nutritious, even after the long awaited and very welcome changes put in place earlier this year.
The good news is that under the new guidelines kids will hopefully double their fruit and veggie intake, will be served more whole grains, all milk will be low fat, and there’ll be upper limits to salt, trans-fat and calories in the school meal. The not so great reality is that kids will continue to eat lots of highly processed foods – very few schools actually cook food from scratch – and tomato paste on pizza counts as a vegetable.
But school food isn’t just the subsidized school lunch; competing with it are the foods sold in schools -- in vending machines, school stores, and a-la-carte in the cafeteria -- which make a big part of what kids actually eat while they’re in school.
The USDA administers and regulates the school lunch program, and is developing nutrition guidelines for the foods and drinks sold at schools. (The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed in 2010, gives the Agriculture Department authority to set health standards for all foods sold on school property — including those in vending machines). Right now, the only existing federal restriction is that foods of “minimal nutritional values”, such as candy and soda, won’t be sold in the cafeteria during meal times. That of course doesn’t mean they can’t be sold right outside the cafeteria doors.
In the meantime some states have developed their own regulations. Studying the effects of different sets of regulations and their enforcement can teach us what’s been successful – and what doesn’t work.
Vending machines with fewer calories
California was one of the first states to implement rules for vending and selling foods in schools; these rules limit the caloric content, fat and sugar in snacks, and ban soda and sweetened beverages.
A new study in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine compared California high school students’ daily intake to the intake of students from 14 states without any school nutrition standards.
California kids ate fewer calories per day at school -- 170 fewer – compared to high school students in other states. California kids also consumed less fat and sugar.
Did the kids load up the ‘lost’ calories on their way home or once they got there? It doesn’t seem so. Although California students ate more of their daily calories out of school when compared to the kids from the “no rules” states, the Golden State’s students took in 158 fewer calories a day, overall.
And a reduction of 158 calories is a big deal. We gain weight very gradually, and reducing even 100 calories a day can prevent weight gain and put a dent in the obesity crisis.
Fewer calories, perhaps no better nutrition
California students ate fewer calories from fat and sugar, but the study found that their intake of nutrients such as vitamins and minerals was unchanged compared to the students from the other states.
The authors suggest that the reason lies if the food laws themselves: the laws limit sugar fat and salt, they don’t require whole grains, fruits or vegetables. Replacing full fat chips with baked low-salt ones can only do so much.
Providing truly healthy substitutes is obviously the next step, but since obesity – too many calories -- and the abundance of sugar, fat and salt in kids’ diets are the main nutrition problem facing us, I’d conclude that California kids seem to enjoy better nutrition according this study.
Does public policy impact kids’ health?
While there are plenty of studies that show policies have a positive impact on kids’ eating habits, there are definitely studies that show that they don’t. I shared a recent study that showed that in schools that banned only soda, kids bought the other vended sugary beverages instead. In schools that banned all sugary drinks kids indeed consumed fewer sugary drinks at school, but their consumption did not decrease overall; kids were able to find sugary drinks out of school, and filled the sugar gap before and after school. In other words, school vending policies only changed the school environment, and didn’t seem to be enough to change kids’ access and behavior overall.
I’d argue that even if the regulations don’t have the immediate nutrition-improving outcome we’d hoped for, it’s still imperative to apply nutrition rules for educational reasons. It’s impossible to advocate for safe driving while holding a cellphone with one hand and the wheel with the other.
School should have a central role in nutrition education, and you can’t teach healthy nutrition while benefiting from the sale of junk food within school walls.
Kids spend half their waking hours in school and consume much of their daily calories while on campus. Changing school food should be a critical part of the effort to combat obesity.