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Pop Quiz: How Can You Reduce the Fat in School Lunches?

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from the USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

When Americans think of the United States Department of Agriculture, they understandably think about the millions of farmers and ranchers who produce our food, feed, fiber, and fuel – the most productive in the world. But there is another group of Americans directly impacted by the work of USDA – the millions of our children who are fed through our child nutrition programs such as the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.

A recent study sponsored by the Food and Nutrition Service examined how well schools across the country met USDA nutrition standards for key nutrients like protein, calcium, and vitamin C.  Several of us at the USDA Economic Research Service realized that we could use that same data set to look at the characteristics of schools that met the fat requirements and, more importantly, what successful steps some schools are taking to do just that.

The data set is small, but it is nationally representative.  We found many statistically significant associations between fat content and school policies despite the small nature of the sample.

A number of school policies and practices were associated with lower fat lunches:

* participation in programs that promote fresh fruits and vegetables or locally grown food;
* providing low-fat milk as the only milk choice;
* eliminating French fries or dessert from the menus;
* eliminating vending machines in middle and high schools; and
* excluding a la carte foods from elementary school menus.

The meal planning method also showed a pattern. In the traditional “food-based” method, each meal must consist of certain food item categories (e.g., meat, vegetable, starch). Some schools have moved to a nutrient-based method that plans meals according to nutrient content. And some have opted for an intermediate, “enhanced food-based” plan that combines the food-based method with more fruits, vegetables, and grains. The traditional meal planning method was used more by schools with the highest fat content.

The only school characteristic that was strongly associated with lower fat meals was being in an urban location compared to a suburban or rural one.

The strength of so many associations between school food policies and lunch fat content provide some interesting food for thought in addressing current concerns about nutrition for children.

Dr. Lynn Harvey with NC Department of Public Instruction Child Nutrition Services and Southeast Regional Administrator Donald Arnette with USDA Food and Nutrition Service encourages Thomasville Primary School students in the “strawberry in the spoon” race as part of the school’s Let’s Move program inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama (USDA photo by Debbie Haston-Hilger) Dr. Lynn Harvey with NC Department of Public Instruction Child Nutrition Services and Southeast Regional Administrator Donald Arnette with USDA Food and Nutrition Service encourages Thomasville Primary School students in the “strawberry in the spoon” race as part of the school’s Let’s Move program inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama (USDA photo by Debbie Haston-Hilger)

Local farmer and County Commissioner Billy Joe Kepley volunteers his time to teach Thomasville Primary School students the art of farming in their school’s garden. The school located in Thomasville, NC, is a HealthierUS School Challenge Gold Award winner and also has a Let’s Move program inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama (USDA photo by Debbie Haston-Hilger) Local farmer and County Commissioner Billy Joe Kepley volunteers his time to teach Thomasville Primary School students the art of farming in their school’s garden. The school located in Thomasville, NC, is a HealthierUS School Challenge Gold Award winner and also has a Let’s Move program inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama (USDA photo by Debbie Haston-Hilger)

 
Constance Newman, Economist, USDA Economic Research Service

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