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JAMA study shows that the healthiest meals children receive come from school. Here’s what it means.

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School meals have the power to change the trajectory of our children’s health for the better. The JAMA Network published a study analyzing the diets of adults and children over the course of 15 years (2003-2018) to determine the greatest increase in diet quality both among age groups and food sources. The sources analyzed included grocery stores, restaurants, workplaces, schools, and others using the Healthy Eating Index, which scores a person’s diet using 13 different components that maximize nutritional benefits. Over the study, schools showed the greatest improvement of the sources studied in nutritional quality, thanks largely to the implementation of the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA). However, outside of school meals, children had the worst overall diet quality compared to the adult group. This highlights the incredible influence school meals have on children’s health because of their reach, accessibility, and adherence to higher nutritional standards, and the opportunity to become the model for these other food sources. 

Up to 50% of a child’s caloric intake comes from school meals. This is especially true in low-income communities, and over the course of the pandemic where the country has seen a 14% increase in SNAP enrollment. Schools serve over 7 billion meals annually, feeding more than 30 million children. These meals are created to meet the caloric needs of each student age group while satisfying all major nutritional food groups. Continuing to increase nutritional quality around school meals would have the largest impact on children’s health.

This study also confirms that the HHFKA produced large, specific, and equitable impacts on improving the nutritional quality of food being served to children. The study showed that the largest improvements at schools were associated with adding whole grains, lowering saturated fats and sodium levels in meals, and reducing sugar sweetened beverages served – all changes following the introduction of HHFKA standards. This caused a significant boost in the school food nutrition quality data in the second half of the research period. While the changes implemented were a huge win for child health, school meals still have significant room for nutrition improvement.

Eat REAL builds upon this success to raise the bar even further for our most vulnerable and underserved populations. Our certification program analyzes school menu development, ingredient sourcing, and meal preparation and offers opportunities and guidance towards establishing practices that increase overall nutrition quality. This means increasing scratch cooking, reducing added sugars across several meal components, and revising menu items to include as many nutrient-dense and whole ingredients as possible.

Our program also encourages educating students on what they are eating and why their meal choices are important, turning the cafeteria into a classroom.  By building a sense of security and ownership over the food they eat, students are empowered to make healthier choices once they leave school. These students become the next generation of real food advocates, generating the demand for higher quality nutrition in the food they buy.

We need to make sure that these choices are supported, and the demand can be met throughout their lives.There is much work to be done across all areas of diet for children, but, as this study illuminates, schools can be a powerful catalyst for critical healthful and equitable improvements. As we continue to focus on these changes, the resulting pressures on our food supply chain and eating habits will drive a transition towards higher nutritional quality in all food sources. We’re counting on it. And so are our kids.

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