A new study found that children improved their diet quality when they ate school-prepared lunches following the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act nutritional guidelines instead of home-prepared lunches.

Lower-income and non-Hispanic Black students saw the most significant improvement.

“It was very clear that across the board that the overall quality of kids’ diets improves when they eat a school meal,” says Travis Smith, associate professor in the University of Georgia agricultural and applied economics department and lead author of the study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The study population included more than 13,000 schoolchildren. Researchers reviewed two dietary intake diary entries per child including at-home and at-school meals to analyze diet quality. They compared Healthy Eating Index scores, a 0 to 100 score that measures adherence to nutritional guidelines, for students from before and after HHFKA’s 2012 implementation. Healthy Eating Index (HEI) improvements were seen across the board.

“We found that if all children were to eat a school meal versus an at-home meal, the disparity in their Healthy Eating Index goes away,” Smith says.

All students improved their HEI scores, and students from low-income households saw a 10.34% increase over at-home dietary scores. The largest improvement, however, was among non-Hispanic Black students. They saw a 16% increase in their healthy eating scores over at-home scores, which Smith says relates to baseline diet as well as the benefit of school lunches.

“The increase in HEI points for non-Hispanic Black students and students that live in lower income households is higher, but the baseline they’re coming from for at-home diet quality is also lower,” Smith says. “That’s why you get such a big jump. You have a higher increase from a relatively lower base.”

An increase in whole grains was the largest contributor to a healthier diet, and a decrease in saturated fat intake was a close second.

“Prior to HHFKA, school food used to contribute negatively to whole grain consumption because kids would eat refined grains instead of whole grains,” Smith says. “But when the act went into full implementation in 2013, it led to more than a one-point bump in HEI.”

While school nutritional guidelines used to come up once every five years as part of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, it has not been wholesale updated since HHFKA’s first approval in 2010. Instead of sweeping changes, there have been minor patchwork tweaks year over year, Smith says.

For example, in 2010, if 40% of schoolchildren in a district were eligible for free meals, then schools could offer free meals to all students. In 2023, however, that threshold was lowered to 25%. This is an example of an overall trend, Smith says, and indicates where these guidelines are moving.

Read the full article about children's nutrition by Erica Techo at Futurity.