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Health Science

Study Finds That US Schools Have The Most Nutritious Food Amongst Places We Buy From

Photo: Africa Studio // Shutterstock

We get our food from a whole lot of different places, whether it be grocery stores, ordering from restaurants, or at work.

Turns out that where we get our food from has some correlation to the nutritional quality of those meals, and the ones with the highest quality actually come from schools.

A recently published study from Tufts University that looked at nutrition data patterns found that from 2003-2018, school meal quality rose to the point that they were our most nutritious food source (2018 is the most recent year that national data for this is available).

Just under a fourth (24%) of the meals consumed at schools were of poor nutritional quality by 2018. In order from lowest to highest percentage of badly balanced meals, the next best food sources were grocery stores (45%), entertainment venues/food trucks (52%), and restaurants (80%).

It should be noted that the above numbers were in terms of meals served to kids. For adults, meals consumed at schools were not evaluated, but the most nutritious food source was grocery stores (33%), followed by food trucks/entertainment (45%), work sites (51%), and restaurants (65%).

A press release from Tufts University attributed the high quality of school meals to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which created new standards for school and early child care nutrition. The policy contributed to a 33% drop in proportion of poor quality meals served at schools over the last 13 years.

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act also resulted in highly equitable changes across the board, with the nutritional improvements coming from school meals being on par across ethnicity, education, and household income.

In contrast, other food sources had “significant disparities” when it came to improvements in quality across these different demographics.

While it’s great that we know where the most nutritious food can come from, it should be noted that just nine percent of all calories consumed by children in that time period came from schools. With the COVID-19 pandemic raging on, it’s likely that number has even been lower in more recent years.

The study overall found that across the United States, all major food sources could improve on the nutritional quality of their meals, and special attention needs to be given to the equity of how the food is bettered.

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Food Policy Health

Free Meals Schools Have Been Serving Through The Pandemic Extended Through 2020

One of the major concerns of the coronavirus pandemic is how to get kids the meals they would normally have at school. Some of this was accounted for through districts that have been giving free meals to all children under the age of 18, regardless of eligibility for the free and reduced lunch program.

This was achieved thanks to waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that allowed all schools to serve free breakfast and lunch to children. Those waivers end on August 31st, at which point schools would have to start charging for meals and tracking meal debt for those unable to pay again.

However, as the pandemic rages on and the deadlines on those waivers fast approaching, there’s no sign that the government is going to renew or extend those waivers.

Photo: Annie Spratt // Unsplash

According to The Counter, lawmakers asked the USDA on August 14th to extend those regulatory waivers, which would allow schools to continue providing free breakfasts and lunches for students. In a letter dated August 20th, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue stated that he could not honor the request, saying that “the scope of this request is beyond what USDA currently has the authority to implement and would be closer to a universal school meals program which Congress has not authorized or funded.”

The initial waivers were funded by the Families First Coronavirus Act, one of the early rounds of funding passed by Congress. However, with current negotiations on any new stimulus packages at an impasse, it’s unclear whether any money will be made available to continue to allow kids to get those meals.

Perdue claims that there are “already opportunities… for children in need,” seemingly suggesting that charities and nonprofits could pick up for where schools had been providing before.

A perspective review paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, published in April 2020, suggests that interruptions of these programs to families in need could hamper households in both the short and long term, decreasing immunity (and increasing the risk to contract diseases) as well as decreasing health and academic performance of children in those households.

Unless the USDA reverses its decision by August 31st and decides to extend those waivers, meals will be distributed under the old free and reduced lunch standards once again. For those who have already been struggling during coronavirus, this could present an even bigger challenge.

If waivers are not extended, families would need to wait until Congress returns from recess and agrees on a coronavirus stimulus package to see if funding could be extended to allow those waivers, and free meals from schools, to continue.

UPDATE: On August 31st, the USDA moved to allow free meals from schools to continue through the end of 2020, as long as funding allows it.