About The Buzz: Improved School Meal Standards Significantly Improves Student Nutrition?

TheBUZZ Improved School Meal Standards Significantly Improves Student Nutrition?


The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), authorized in 2010, sought to improve the nutritional quality of foods served to schoolchildren across the United States. A newly published study demonstrates that the act has effectively improved the nutritional quality of foods chosen by students, driven primarily by the increase in variety, portion size and number of servings of fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, it did this without hurting school meal participation.


On average, a school age child spends about 6.5 hours each day in school, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.1 In the United States, the percentage of children aged 6-11 years who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2012, and in adolescents aged 12-19 years, obesity rose from 5% to nearly 21% over the same period. In total, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. Because children spend so much of their time in schools, it’s critically important that the foods provided to children by schools be nutritious.

This is especially true for children who participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), started in 1946 with the goal of providing nutritionally balanced, meals to students.3 Today, this federally assisted program operates in over 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools, providing free or low-cost meals to nearly 31 million children each school day. Children from families whose incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Students from families whose incomes are 130 to 185 percent of the poverty level qualify for reduce-priced meals and are charged no more than 40 cents (for the period July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2014, 130 percent of the poverty level is $30,615 for a family of four; 185 percent is $43,568.). Many children enrolled in the NSLP also receive breakfast through the School Breakfast Program and often receive after-school snacks.


In 2010, Congress passed this act in an effort to improve the nutritional quality of school food with a goal of “fostering a healthy school food environment and promoting lifelong healthy eating behaviors among children.”4 The revised standards, which were implemented at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, increased the availability of whole grains, vegetables, and fruits and specified weekly requirements for beans/peas as well as dark green, red/orange, starchy and other vegetables. In addition, the standards required that the portion size of fruits and vegetables increase and also required students to select at least 1 serving of fruits and vegetables.


In a comprehensive evaluation of the program, data from 3 high schools and 3 middle schools were collected from January 2011 through January 2014 in the 16 school-year months prior to and the 15 school year-months after the implementation of the HHFKA. The selected schools were large, urban and predominantly low-income and the majority of the students were from racial and ethnic minorities. In total, 7200 children are enrolled at the 6 schools, and 54% qualify for NSLP.


The study found that the implementation of the new nutritional standards resulted in the improved nutritional quality of school meals. This means that the foods students were selecting were providing more nutrients to their bodies without adding more calories! These changes were due to an increase in the variety, quantity and number of servings of fruits and vegetables available to students, because fruits and vegetables provide many vitamins, nutrients and a lot a of fiber for a relatively low amount of calories.

We’re excited that the HFFKA is improving the nutritional quality of meals for children across the country. Students who have greater access to fruits and vegetables are more likely to try new foods, enjoy them and establish healthy eating habits for a lifetime, both inside and outside of schools. 5 Tips for Choosing School Lunch!


1 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), “Public School Data File,” 2007-08. View

2 Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Flegal KM. Prevalence of childhood and adult obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. Journal of the American Medical Association 2014;311(8):806-814. View

3 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Nutrition Service, “National School Lunch Program Fact Sheet,” 2013. View

4 Johnson DB, Podrabsky M, Rocha A, Otten JJ. Effect of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act on the Nutritional Quality of Meals Selected by Students and School Lunch Participation Rates. JAMA Pediatr. 2016. View

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