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UF/IFAS researcher: Study shows federal school lunch guidelines lead to healthier choices

October 13, 2016

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Federal school lunch guidelines enacted in 2012 are improving nutrition choices for school-age children and show the potential to reduce childhood obesity over time for children who participate in the program, according to a new study co-authored by a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences faculty member.

UF/IFAS assistant professor of food and resource economics Jaclyn Kropp — along with economists at Georgia State University, Clemson University and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—worked with a county school food services director to develop a novel research model to study school lunch choices children make, combining lunch sales data collected at the cafeteria register with data on student absences.

The goal of the new school lunch guidelines is to provide school-aged children greater access to foods that improve their nutrition and reduce instances of obesity. To add to the research evaluating the success of the the new school lunch guidelines, researchers in this study investigated how the nutritional content of National School Lunch Program entrées chosen by students varied across different socioeconomic and demographic groups and estimated the potential impact of the program on student health.

“The key finding is that while students prefer less-healthy school lunch options, income constraints, particularly for those students receiving free and reduced-price meals, cause these students to continue participating in the school lunch program and, hence, these students consume healthier meals,” Kropp said.

Students more likely to participate in free- and reduced-price lunch programs are among the same populations most likely to suffer from obesity and related health risks, said Janet Peckham, an economist in the Office of the Commissioner at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and lead author of the study.  Offering healthier food options at school can reduce daily calorie and sodium intake for students who rely upon meals provided by the school.  The study shows that if the program continues, and students continue to participate, the new school lunch guidelines have the potential to decrease childhood obesity over time.

Nearly 32 million students are served more than 5 billion lunches in a school day in the United States. More than two-thirds of these meals are free- and reduced-price lunches that follow school lunch program guidelines. Federal school lunch program nutrition standards require greater availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free or low-fat milk and a reduction in saturated fats and sodium.

The study is published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.

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By: Brad Buck, 352-294-3303, brandbuck@ufl.edu

Melissa McGinnis, 352-294-7637, melissamcginnis@ufl.edu

Source: Jaclyn Kropp, 352-294-7631, jkropp@ufl.edu