An elementary school student holding a lunch tray

The National School Lunch Program provides free or reduced-price lunches to more than 30 million children daily. But the students — mostly from low-income families and mainly from racial and ethnic backgrounds — are concerned about how nutritious these foods are, most of which depend on their diet.

A new study by VC researchers at the University of Virginia Commonwealth and Richmond Children’s Hospital examined 1,102 lunches selected and eaten by children in six Title I elementary schools that provide free meals to all students. He really ate.

He found that the foods selected by the students met most federal nutrition recommendations for most children. But based on total consumption, fewer children are advised to eat a total of calories (5%), calcium (8%), iron (11%), vitamin A (18%), and vitamin C (16%). And fiber (7%).

Elizabeth Adams, a graduate of the VC Massei Cancer Center at Richmond Children’s Hospital at the VCU Healthy Lifestyle Center, says: . “This means that although children are given the opportunity to consume sufficient amounts of essential nutrients, evidence-based strategies are needed to introduce children to selected nutritious foods.

New research shows that for the first time since 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Children’s Act, which requires schools to provide more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains with other reforms, has re-authorized children’s nutrition and school nutrition standards. , Signed by law.

The researchers said that the findings of the study highlight the need for the current National School Lunch Program to maintain a healthy diet.

“We hope this research will inform us about the current legal decisions on nutrition,” said Melanie K. Ben, PhD, co-author of the study and co-director of the Center for Child and Psychiatry at VCC. Member of the Richmond Children’s Hospital in VCU, as well as a VCU Massey Cancer Center Cancer Prevention and Control Research Program. “Congress has an important opportunity to sustain – or better – improve [National School Lunch Program] This research, and the findings of other research, support nutrition.

In March, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry re-heard the National School Lunch Program, which included the National School Lunch Program. At the time of the epidemic, the US Department of Agriculture was providing educational guidelines to school districts to provide flexibility. There are calls in some in Congress to continue to allow school districts to continue to address dietary requirements, particularly sodium and grains, which are very difficult to maintain.

Adams contradicts the assumption: “This study shows that most of these schools are able to provide nutritious food, which is very challenging to meet the current dietary recommendations.” “Instead of backtracking on these nutritional standards for children, our research shows that nutrition guidelines should be (at least) improved and improved. For example, we argue that there should be an added sugar limit in the new standards. ”

The researchers said they support implementation intervention strategies aimed at increasing children’s consumption of healthy foods selected as part of the school’s lunch program. He also called on school districts, especially high-income schools, to ensure that they are able to provide nutritious food.

The researchers support three key steps for policy makers: prioritize children’s nutrition, make evidence-based decisions to maintain or improve the National School Lunch program, and invest in strategies to improve policy impact by supporting schools to achieve health. Introduce children to the recommended diet and nutritious ingredients.

“After a significant increase in malnutrition due to COVID-19, a return to current nutrition standards will not only harm children’s health but also provide them with access to essential nutrients,” Adams said.

“Any changes to the National School Lunch Program will have significant public health implications,” Bin said.

He said we have a real opportunity to advocate for healthy foods in schools, to ensure that science-based dietary standards are in place and to support schools to meet those standards. “School lunches have been shown to be healthier on average compared to home-cooked meals, and children who attend school lunches – especially those from low-income families – have demonstrated the health benefits of obesity.

“Our study shows that we are still working to ensure that children consume these healthy foods and that we must continue to build on the success of healthy, hunger-free children’s law for school meals,” he added.

Reversing current nutrition standards — especially now that COVID-19 has led to a significant increase in malnutrition — is detrimental to children’s health and even access to essential nutrients.

Elizabeth Adams, Ph.D.

The study was published in the Journal of Health Education and Behavior in the journal “Lunch at School Lunch with International Free Meals”. The paper was the second analysis of data collected as part of a study funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The researchers collected the study data using “digital image plate trapping methods”. At the beginning of lunch, children’s lunch trays were posted, and pre-consumption pictures were taken as students left the lunch line. At the end of the lunch, a post-consumption image is taken from each lunch tray before any garbage is dumped. Pre- and post-consumption images for each child are based on tray tags.

Trained markers in the laboratory examine related images and evaluate how much food and drink is left on the tray in the post-consumption image. Standard measurements were made for each food and beverage, and the amount wasted for each child was reduced to this value, allowing researchers to determine how much each item was used. Dietary information was available for each food and beverage item to identify all selected foods (pre-consumption image) and then used (difference between lunch selection and junk).

In addition to Adamas and Bean, the study’s authors include Associate Dean and Professor Holly A. Rainer, PhD, in the Nutrition Unit at the College of Education, Health and Human Services, University of Tennessee. Laura M. Torton, PhD, Professor of Research at Chapel Hill University of North Carolina, and Susan E. Mazzo, PhD, Professor of Psychology at the College of Humanities and Science at VCC.