While the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets federal nutritional standards for school lunches, states vary in how strictly they adhere to the guidelines, and, in recent years, nutrition experts have criticized the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which began in 1946 to provide free or discounted lunch to students from low-income households, with doing a poor job of meeting nutritional requirements.
Some states passed laws to require NSLPs in their jurisdictions to exceed the USDA’s standards, while others failed to even meet the government’s standards completely.
And in a study published in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago show how important school lunches can be in helping children to maintain healthy weights. The scientists found that children attending schools where lunches exceeded the USDA standards were leaner compared to those in schools falling short of USDA nutritional guides.
The researchers studied 4,870 eighth-graders in 40 states during the 2006-2007 school year, and found that those attending schools that did not exceed nutritional standards were twice as likely to be obese as those in schools where these standards were surpassed.
In fact, at schools where meals exceeded USDA nutritional guides, the students eating the free or discounted meals were 12.3 percent less likely to be obese than those who didn’t eat the lunches. Since low-income kids are at a higher risk of developing obesity, the researchers focused on this population of students and found that stricter nutritional standards were particularly effective in controlling weight.
The NSLP currently feeds over 31 million students each day, and in response to concerns that the lunches do not meet all of the government’s nutritional standards, in January 2012 the USDA revised school meal guidelines by requiring more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and stricter calorie limits. While the current study was conducted before these stricter guidelines were implemented, the schools that exceeded the older USDA standards were essentially enforcing these latest changes.
Read More: healthland.time.com