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Evidence Shows Taking Part in School Nutrition Programs Helps Students Make Better Dietary Choices

Evidence-Based Diabetes ManagementMarch 2014
Volume 20
Issue SP4

We all know teaching good nutrition at an early age is an important step toward preventing childhood obesity, but you might be surprised to hear how much work is being done to promote healthy diets in America’s school cafeterias.

In light of mounting scientific evidence linking good nutrition with student achievement, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 set in motion a series of changes in our schools, designed to ensure that students have access to healthy, properly portioned school meals and snacks throughout the school day.

With approximately 100,000 schools nationwide serving more than 30 million students lunch and 13 million students breakfast, we have a tremendous opportunity to teach the next generation about making nutritious choices right in their school cafeterias.

It is important to recognize that many children have already formed their dietary preferences before the first day of school and still eat the majority of their meals at home or in restaurants, where right-sized portions can be a rarity.

The success of school food improvements hinges on efforts to entice students to try the nutritious options available to them, and to make smart choices like starting their school day with breakfast. Schools need to inform the healthcare community, parents, coaches, and the community about the healthy changes on campus. We all need to work together to teach kids the importance of a proper diet and the consequences of unhealthy choices.

From role modeling right-sized meals, to introducing kids to fruits and vegetables they’ll find in their school cafeterias, we can all help nudge students toward the choices we want them to make when they walk through the lunch line or stop at the school vending machine.

Federal Standards Set the Bar

School nutrition professionals have revolutionized school meals in recent years. Even before the overhaul of federal nutrition standards occurred, research published in Journal of the American Dietetic Association revealed that “school lunch participants were significantly more likely than nonparticipants to consume milk, fruit, and vegetables, and significantly less likely to consume desserts, snack items, and beverages other than milk or 100% juice.”1

Starting in July 2012,2 the federal government raised the bar by requiring all schools participating in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs to meet more stringent nutrition standards for school meals.

Under these rules, cafeterias must offer more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, including weekly servings of fiber-rich legumes, vitamin-packed dark leafy greens and red or orange vegetables. School milk is now fat-free or 1%, and meals meet new limits on calories, trans-fat, and sodium.

Even pizza has gotten a makeover. School pizza is now prepared with a whole grain crust, low-fat cheese, reduced sodium sauce, and itcomes with a choice of fruit and vegetable sides.

Starting in July 2014, schools will also be required to meet similar nutrition standards for “competitive” foods and beverages—those items sold in school vending machines, snack bars and a la carte lines.

School nutrition professionals have been spicing up their recipes, working with chefs to mix up the menu and finding creative ways to promote these better-for-you choices to students.

Recognizing the power of a free sample, school cafeterias are hosting taste tests that allow students to sample and vote on their favorite fruits and vegetables. More schools are also fighting the fear of fresh produce by teaching kids where their food comes from and offering farm fresh produce on the menu. The US Department of Agriculture’s recent Farm to School Census3 found that 43% of schools surveyed are participating in farm to school activities.

We’ve also seen schools partner with the healthcare community. Beaver City School (Ohio) teamed up with a local hospital’s wellness group to create free-standing mobile information kiosks that deliver nutrition education to middle and high school students right in the cafeteria. Hospital dietitians helped design the concept and content for the kiosks. Laptops allow students to explore everything from “the Facts of Fast Food,” to healthy serving sizes and beverage choices. Dietetic interns dedicated time onsite to help familiarize students with kiosk operation and content.

Even with all these positive efforts, many school cafeterias have witnessed an increase in student plate waste since the new standards took effect. Many students simply don’t recognize the fruits and vegetables they encounter in the cafeteria, and most kids are reluctant to try new foods.

Getting families to embrace healthy choices at home is just as important as teaching students about nutrition at school. Westside Community School in Nebraska recently hosted a community event that celebrated healthy eating and exercise. Families dined on a SuperPower veggie and fruit buffet, local celebrity chefs offered cooking demonstrations to teach parents how to prepare fresh and healthy meals at home, and members of the Westside freshman football team helped younger kids complete a Fuel Up to Play 604 fitness challenge. We need to see more of these unique partnerships nationwide.

It All Starts With Breakfast

Sometimes the greatest cafeteria challenge is getting students to eat anything at all—especially at breakfast. Hectic mornings, early bus schedules, and even the stigma that can be associated with receiving free or reduced price meals cause many students to miss out on the most important meal of the day.

There’s no doubt that teaching students to start their day with a healthy breakfast could help improve everything from health to academic achieve-ment. A 2012 analysis by Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign and Deloitte revealed that on average, students who eat school breakfast have been shown to achieve 17.5% higher scores on standardized math tests and attend 1.5 more days of school per year.5

But of the 21 million students who receive free or reduced price school lunch, only half of those kids get school breakfast, even though they’re eligible. Many children aren’t getting meals at home either. Kellogg’s recent Breakfast in America6 survey polled over 14,500 people and discovered that 40% of moms report their child does not eat breakfast daily.

In recent years, schools have been stepping up to expand access to school breakfast, which offers lean protein options, whole grains, fruit or 100% fruit juice and low-fat milk. Innovative service options like grab-and-go breakfast choices, breakfast in the classroom programs, breakfast carts and kiosks around the school building are helping drive up breakfast participation. However, as with lunch, schools need the support of the broader community to educate students on why they should take advantage of school breakfast.

Good News on the Horizon

In late February, the Centers for Disease Control reported a 43% decline in the obesity rate among 2- to 5-year-old children over the past decade, an exciting sign that efforts to curb obesity are taking hold7 (see page SP113).


School nutrition professionals will play a key role in nourishing those children by offering healthy food choices at school, but if we want kids to accept these better-for-you meals and develop healthy habits that last a lifetime, we all need to work together to educate kids on the importance of proper diets. Nutrition education—in school and at home—and community partnerships are key to continuing to move the needle on childhood obesity.


1. Condon EM, Crepinsek MK, Fox MK. School Meals: types of foods offered to and consumed by children at lunch and breakfast. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109(2 suppl):S-67-S-78.

2. School Meal Nutrition Standards. Food Research and Action Center website. http://frac.org/federal-foodnutrition-programs/nationalschool-lunch-program/school-meal-nutritionstandards/. Published 2010. Accessed February 28, 2014.

3. Local in the lunchroom: the farm to school census. US Department of Agriculature website. http://www.fns.usda.gov/farmtoschool/census#/. Accessed February 28, 2014.

4. Fuel up to Play60 website. http://www.fueluptoplay60.com/. Published March 2013. Accessed February 28, 2014.

5. Hunger in Schools: Share our Strength Teacher Report 2012. APCO Insight. http://join.nokidhungry.org/site/DocServer/2012-teacherreport-full-final.pdf?docID=8902. Published June 2012. Accessed February 28, 2014.

6. Kellogg’s reveals results of monumental breakfast survey [press release]. Battle Creek, MI: Kellogg’s Company; June 22, 2011. http://newsroom.kelloggcompany.com/index.php?s=27529&item=76379/ Accessed February 28, 2014.

7. New CDC data show encourage development in obesity data among 2 to 5-year-olds [press release]. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; February 25, 2014. http://

www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2014/p0225-child-obesity.html. Accessed February 28, 2014.

Author Information Leah Schmidt, SNS, is president of the School Nutrition Association. The association, based in National Harbor, Maryland, has 55,000 members who plan, prepare, and serve school meals.

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