School Meals Play Big Role in Health of American Children, Especially Latinos


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School meals are important contributors to the healthy diets of our nation’s children.

This is especially true for children in food insecure homes, almost half of whom are Latino, according to 14 papers published in a special issue​ of the journal ​Nutrients.

The papers make important links between school meals and food security, obesity, and racial/ethnic disparities.

“These new papers go even deeper in exploring how national policies [including the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act] have affected children and schools,” said Dr. Mary Story of Healthy Eating Research, which commissioned the new papers. “As Congressional leaders look to reauthorize the bill this year, it’s critical that these standards are kept in place.”

Update 4/8/21: Jamie Bussel of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation explores how school meals are helping families impacted by COVID-19 in a new blog post and video.

Key Findings from the New Papers on School Meals and School Food Nutrition

The 14 papers examine data from USDA’s ​School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study​ (SNMCS). Mathematica led the study.

The SNMCS engaged 1,200 schools, 2,000 students, and 500 school food leaders from the 2014-15 school year to assess school meals after new nutrition standards set by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

school food cafeteria lunch line studentsEven before the new papers, the SNMCS already revealed that the nutritional quality of school lunch increased by 41% and breakfast by 44%.

“The SNMCS assessment of the National School Breakfast and Lunch programs show that children are eating meals lower in sodium and saturated fat, while consuming more whole grains, and costs to school districts have not increased,” according to a news release from Healthy Eating Research.

The new papers further evaluate school food and health equity:

  • The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has reduced disparities in the nutritional quality of school meals. There was no reported differences in the quality of meals served across socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity, according to one of the papers.
  • Another paper​ found that nearly half of Latino students and households (44.7%) are food insecure. This means they are without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. This is far more than their White (31.4%), Black (16.7%) and other peers (7.2%).
  • The same study found that students in food-insecure and marginally secure households were more likely to participate in the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs. This indicates that efforts to boost participation in these programs, and the nutritional quality of the food served by the programs, is appropriately focused on students with the greatest need.
  • The same paper also linked universal free meals with higher school meal participation among food insecure and moderately food secure students. USDA is currently providing free school meals for all students amid COVID-19.

Another paper​ found that offering free meals to all students was associated with lower costs for schools.

“This reveals that offering free meals to all students can provide nutritious meals to more students without a financial disadvantage for schools and school districts,” according to Healthy Eating Research.

Why Is School Meals and School Food Nutrition So Critical for Latino Children?

Latino children account for nearly 25% of public school students.

And yet Latino children often face unhealthy school environments. They have high access to unhealthy foods and drinks in school stores, snack lines, and vending machines, according to a Salud America! research review.

Schools with more Latino students also tend to have weaker policies for school snacks and drinks.

In addition, Latinos are more likely to live in food swamps, or areas with too many unhealthy fast food options and a lack of grocery stores with healthier options, according to another Salud America! research review. This can lead to over-consumption of unhealthy food and higher rates of obesity and disease among Latino children and adults.

Obesity rates continue to be significantly higher for Latino (20.7%) and Black children (22.9%) than for white children (11.7%) ages 10-17, according to the recent State of Childhood Obesity report.

“Healthy school environments are paramount for the proper development of Latino kids, given the rising percentage of Latino students enrolled in public schools and their high rates of obesity,” said Dr. Amelie G. Ramirez, director of Salud America! and the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the UT Health San Antonio.

Why, Even amid Progress, Are School Meals and Food Nutrition Standards Still Under Fire?

For years, under the Trump Administration, USDA tried to weaken nutrition standards in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

In 2017-18, over 80,000 people—including members of Salud America!—submited public comments on USDA’s proposal to allow schools to serve of refined grains over whole grains, flavored milk, and higher levels of salt in meals.

kids in cafeteria eating food protect SNAP from cutsIn 2019-20, USDA sought to ease restrictions on sodium and whole-grain requirements in school meals. But a federal district judge struck it down due to violations of regulatory law, according to The New York Times.

In 2020-21, USDA sought public comment on its proposal to allow flavored, low-fat milk, cut whole grain-rich servings in half, and ease restrictions on sodium. Over 7,000 people—including members of Salud America!—submitted public comments.

A final decision is expected in Spring 2021.

All the Trump Administration’s nutrition-weakening efforts represent an opportunity for the new Biden Administration, according to Colin Schwartz of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

“It’s time to take the politics out of what goes on the lunch tray and return meals to what nutrition experts recommend. The Center for Science in the Public Interest urges the new administration to immediately solidify the nutrition standards for kids’ school breakfasts and lunches,” Schwartz said in a statement. “While they are at it, the new administration should also make sure that no child’s family has to pay for a nutritious school meal for the length of this crisis, and beyond.”

What Can We Do to Promote Healthier School Meals?

The new set of papers made two strong recommendations:

Strong national and state nutrition standards for snack and a la carte foods and beverages. Strong standards contribute to fewer unhealthy foods and beverages available in schools, according to a paper by UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. They also contribute to lower body-mass index (BMI) in children.

Local school wellness policies. Schools in districts with strong wellness policies had higher school breakfast participation rates, according to one paper. They also had stronger procurement policies on saturated fats and sugars, and better school nutrition practices.

“A strong district wellness policy, as opposed to no policy, was associated with more students eating school breakfast (28% vs 19%, respectively), and liking school breakfast (69% vs 54%, respectively),” according to the study.

Health Equity Report CardBeyond these changes, you can advocate for healthy food in your area!

Download a Salud America! Health Equity Report Card. The report card shows how many local children live in poverty and food deserts. It also shows many have low food access, and how many get SNAP food benefits. You can compare local stats to your state and nation.

Email your Health Equity Report Card to community leaders or share on social media. You can, in addition, use it to make the case to address food insecurity where help is needed most.

Get your Health Equity Report Card!

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