Stronger school nutrition standards from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) could improve student health and provide a financial boon for school districts, according to a new health impact assessment (HIA) released Tuesday by the Health Impact Project and the Kids' Safe and Healthful Food Project.
Under the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), passed by Congress, the USDA is responsible for releasing a new set of national nutrition standards for schools. Using the guidance outlined in the DGA as a baseline, the HIA estimated that the obesity increase observed from 1988 to 2002 could have been prevented if daily calorie intake was reduced by 110 to 165 calories -- a signal, the authors said, that new USDA standards could have a similiar effect.
Students typically consume up to half their food (and associated calories) at school. The study found that 74 percent of schools have no restrictions for food sugar content, 72 percent have no restrictions for fat content, 88 percent have no restrictions for sodium content and 84 percent have no restrictions for calories.
More than two-thirds of the 300 research studies reviewed by the projects concluded that such restrictions can reduce childhood weight gain for some age groups -- and thus reduce their risk for related chronic diseases.
Enhanced nutrition standards could also lead to greater participation in school lunch programs, according to the HIA, because less healthy snack foods (usually purchased from vending machines) become unavailable. School districts had formerly been losing that revenue to vending machines, and, according to an economic analysis by Portland State University professor Neal Wallace, school districts in states that have instituted their own nutrition standards have seen a subsequent increase in food-service revenues.
A transition from no standards to high-level standards led to a 2.6 percent increased in overall meal participation, according to the analysis. Paid participation increased by 3 percent. The same transition also correlated with a 4 percent increase in total food-service revenue. Localized examples demonstrate that trend: 13 of 16 schools studied by the University of California-Berkeley saw a revenue increase after implementing nutrition standards. In West Virginia, 80 percent of school administrators said they saw no or little change in food-service revenue after strengthening nutrition standards.
“The evidence is clear and compelling,” said Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe & Healthful Foods Project in a statement. “Implementing strong national nutrition standards to make the snacks and beverages our children consume healthier is something that schools and districts can afford."
The Health Impact Project and the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project are both supported by Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The full report is below.