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Studies Show School Lunch Programs Need Improvement

Studies Show School Lunch Programs Need Improvement


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Kids need more fruits, vegetables, and time to eat healthy

Serving vegetables with nutritious dips would likely make them more appealing to young kids.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, less than 15 percent of Americans fulfill the daily-recommended fruit and vegetable intake guidelines. In response to these statistics, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented a rule in 2012, requiring all school children to take either a fruit or vegetable at each meal.

Click here for the School Lunches Around the World Slideshow.

Three years later, a study has been released measuring the effectiveness of the new school lunch program. Findings show that although these nutritious foods are making it onto the lunch tray, they may not be destined for kids’ stomachs. Researchers used video cameras to study students at two northeastern elementary schools before and after the fruit and vegetable requirement was imposed. After the rule was enforced, children began taking an average of 0.89 cups from the lunch line compared to 0.69 cups before the requirement. However, actual consumption dropped from 0.51 cups to 0.45 cups, with children throwing out the required foods at a rate 35 percent higher than before.

Another new study suggests that short lunch periods may be contributing to the high incidence of food waste in cafeterias. Compared with children who sat at a lunch table for 25 minutes, those who had 20 to 24 minutes to eat consumed 6.9 percent less of their entrees, about four percent fewer vegetables, and about two percent less milk. With more time, kids would likely consume more lunch and have time to eat the foods they don’t initially go for, which is typically vegetables.

Despite these initial findings, advocates are confident that efforts to improve the school lunch program have the potential to succeed. Sarah A. Amin, a postdoctoral researcher at Tufts, explained, “We’re advocating that the guidelines be supplemented with other efforts.” This could include anything from cutting up produce to make them more manageable for small hands, to serving nutritious dips alongside vegetables.

The accompanying slideshow is provided by fellow Daily Meal special contributor Chinmoylad.


How the quality of school lunch affects students’ academic performance

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The main goal of the law was to raise the minimum nutritional standards for public school lunches served as part of the National School Lunch Program. The policy discussion surrounding the new law centered on the underlying health reasons for offering more nutritious school lunches, in particular, concern over the number of children who are overweight. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in five children in the United States is obese.

Surprisingly, the debate over the new law involved very little discussion as to whether providing a more nutritious school lunch could improve student learning. A lengthy medical literature examines the link between diet and cognitive development, and diet and cognitive function. The medical literature focuses on the biological and chemical mechanisms regarding how specific nutrients and compounds are thought to affect physical development (e.g., sight), cognition (e.g., concentration, memory), and behavior (e.g., hyperactivity). Nevertheless, what is lacking in the medical literature is direct evidence on how nutrition impacts educational achievement.

We attempt to fill this gap in a new study that measures the effect of offering healthier public school lunches on end of year academic test scores for public school students in California. The study period covers five academic years (2008-2009 to 2012-2013) and includes all public schools in the state that report test scores (about 9,700 schools, mostly elementary and middle schools). Rather than focus on changes in national nutrition standards, we instead focus on school-specific differences in lunch quality over time. Specifically, we take advantage of the fact that schools can choose to contract with private companies of varying nutritional quality to prepare the school lunches. About 12 percent of California public schools contract with a private lunch company during our study period. School employees completely prepare the meals in-house for 88 percent of the schools.

To determine the quality of different private companies, nutritionists at the Nutrition Policy Institute analyzed the school lunch menus offered by each company. The nutritional quality of the menus was scored using the Healthy Eating Index (HEI). The HEI is a continuous score ranging from zero to 100 that uses a well-established food component analysis to determine how well food offerings (or diets) match the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The HEI is the Department of Agriculture’s preferred measure of diet quality, and the agency uses it to “examine relationships between diet and health-related outcomes, and to assess the quality of food assistance packages, menus, and the US food supply.” The average HEI score for the U.S. population is 63.8, while the median HEI score in our study is 59.9. In other words, the typical private company providing public school lunch in CA is a bit less healthy than the average American diet.

We measure the relationship between having a lunch prepared by a standard (below median HEI) or healthy (above median HEI) company relative to in-house preparation by school staff. Our model estimates the effect of lunch quality on student achievement using year-to-year changes between in-house preparation of school meals and outside vendors of varying menu quality, within a given school. We control for grade, school, and year factors, as well as specific student and school characteristics including race, English learner, low family income, school budget, and student-to-teacher ratios.

We find that in years when a school contracts with a healthy lunch company, students at the school score better on end-of-year academic tests. On average, student test scores are 0.03 to 0.04 standard deviations higher (about 4 percentile points). Not only that, the test score increases are about 40 percent larger for students who qualify for reduced-price or free school lunches. These students are also the ones who are most likely to eat the school lunches.


How the quality of school lunch affects students’ academic performance

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The main goal of the law was to raise the minimum nutritional standards for public school lunches served as part of the National School Lunch Program. The policy discussion surrounding the new law centered on the underlying health reasons for offering more nutritious school lunches, in particular, concern over the number of children who are overweight. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in five children in the United States is obese.

Surprisingly, the debate over the new law involved very little discussion as to whether providing a more nutritious school lunch could improve student learning. A lengthy medical literature examines the link between diet and cognitive development, and diet and cognitive function. The medical literature focuses on the biological and chemical mechanisms regarding how specific nutrients and compounds are thought to affect physical development (e.g., sight), cognition (e.g., concentration, memory), and behavior (e.g., hyperactivity). Nevertheless, what is lacking in the medical literature is direct evidence on how nutrition impacts educational achievement.

We attempt to fill this gap in a new study that measures the effect of offering healthier public school lunches on end of year academic test scores for public school students in California. The study period covers five academic years (2008-2009 to 2012-2013) and includes all public schools in the state that report test scores (about 9,700 schools, mostly elementary and middle schools). Rather than focus on changes in national nutrition standards, we instead focus on school-specific differences in lunch quality over time. Specifically, we take advantage of the fact that schools can choose to contract with private companies of varying nutritional quality to prepare the school lunches. About 12 percent of California public schools contract with a private lunch company during our study period. School employees completely prepare the meals in-house for 88 percent of the schools.

To determine the quality of different private companies, nutritionists at the Nutrition Policy Institute analyzed the school lunch menus offered by each company. The nutritional quality of the menus was scored using the Healthy Eating Index (HEI). The HEI is a continuous score ranging from zero to 100 that uses a well-established food component analysis to determine how well food offerings (or diets) match the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The HEI is the Department of Agriculture’s preferred measure of diet quality, and the agency uses it to “examine relationships between diet and health-related outcomes, and to assess the quality of food assistance packages, menus, and the US food supply.” The average HEI score for the U.S. population is 63.8, while the median HEI score in our study is 59.9. In other words, the typical private company providing public school lunch in CA is a bit less healthy than the average American diet.

We measure the relationship between having a lunch prepared by a standard (below median HEI) or healthy (above median HEI) company relative to in-house preparation by school staff. Our model estimates the effect of lunch quality on student achievement using year-to-year changes between in-house preparation of school meals and outside vendors of varying menu quality, within a given school. We control for grade, school, and year factors, as well as specific student and school characteristics including race, English learner, low family income, school budget, and student-to-teacher ratios.

We find that in years when a school contracts with a healthy lunch company, students at the school score better on end-of-year academic tests. On average, student test scores are 0.03 to 0.04 standard deviations higher (about 4 percentile points). Not only that, the test score increases are about 40 percent larger for students who qualify for reduced-price or free school lunches. These students are also the ones who are most likely to eat the school lunches.


How the quality of school lunch affects students’ academic performance

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The main goal of the law was to raise the minimum nutritional standards for public school lunches served as part of the National School Lunch Program. The policy discussion surrounding the new law centered on the underlying health reasons for offering more nutritious school lunches, in particular, concern over the number of children who are overweight. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in five children in the United States is obese.

Surprisingly, the debate over the new law involved very little discussion as to whether providing a more nutritious school lunch could improve student learning. A lengthy medical literature examines the link between diet and cognitive development, and diet and cognitive function. The medical literature focuses on the biological and chemical mechanisms regarding how specific nutrients and compounds are thought to affect physical development (e.g., sight), cognition (e.g., concentration, memory), and behavior (e.g., hyperactivity). Nevertheless, what is lacking in the medical literature is direct evidence on how nutrition impacts educational achievement.

We attempt to fill this gap in a new study that measures the effect of offering healthier public school lunches on end of year academic test scores for public school students in California. The study period covers five academic years (2008-2009 to 2012-2013) and includes all public schools in the state that report test scores (about 9,700 schools, mostly elementary and middle schools). Rather than focus on changes in national nutrition standards, we instead focus on school-specific differences in lunch quality over time. Specifically, we take advantage of the fact that schools can choose to contract with private companies of varying nutritional quality to prepare the school lunches. About 12 percent of California public schools contract with a private lunch company during our study period. School employees completely prepare the meals in-house for 88 percent of the schools.

To determine the quality of different private companies, nutritionists at the Nutrition Policy Institute analyzed the school lunch menus offered by each company. The nutritional quality of the menus was scored using the Healthy Eating Index (HEI). The HEI is a continuous score ranging from zero to 100 that uses a well-established food component analysis to determine how well food offerings (or diets) match the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The HEI is the Department of Agriculture’s preferred measure of diet quality, and the agency uses it to “examine relationships between diet and health-related outcomes, and to assess the quality of food assistance packages, menus, and the US food supply.” The average HEI score for the U.S. population is 63.8, while the median HEI score in our study is 59.9. In other words, the typical private company providing public school lunch in CA is a bit less healthy than the average American diet.

We measure the relationship between having a lunch prepared by a standard (below median HEI) or healthy (above median HEI) company relative to in-house preparation by school staff. Our model estimates the effect of lunch quality on student achievement using year-to-year changes between in-house preparation of school meals and outside vendors of varying menu quality, within a given school. We control for grade, school, and year factors, as well as specific student and school characteristics including race, English learner, low family income, school budget, and student-to-teacher ratios.

We find that in years when a school contracts with a healthy lunch company, students at the school score better on end-of-year academic tests. On average, student test scores are 0.03 to 0.04 standard deviations higher (about 4 percentile points). Not only that, the test score increases are about 40 percent larger for students who qualify for reduced-price or free school lunches. These students are also the ones who are most likely to eat the school lunches.


How the quality of school lunch affects students’ academic performance

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The main goal of the law was to raise the minimum nutritional standards for public school lunches served as part of the National School Lunch Program. The policy discussion surrounding the new law centered on the underlying health reasons for offering more nutritious school lunches, in particular, concern over the number of children who are overweight. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in five children in the United States is obese.

Surprisingly, the debate over the new law involved very little discussion as to whether providing a more nutritious school lunch could improve student learning. A lengthy medical literature examines the link between diet and cognitive development, and diet and cognitive function. The medical literature focuses on the biological and chemical mechanisms regarding how specific nutrients and compounds are thought to affect physical development (e.g., sight), cognition (e.g., concentration, memory), and behavior (e.g., hyperactivity). Nevertheless, what is lacking in the medical literature is direct evidence on how nutrition impacts educational achievement.

We attempt to fill this gap in a new study that measures the effect of offering healthier public school lunches on end of year academic test scores for public school students in California. The study period covers five academic years (2008-2009 to 2012-2013) and includes all public schools in the state that report test scores (about 9,700 schools, mostly elementary and middle schools). Rather than focus on changes in national nutrition standards, we instead focus on school-specific differences in lunch quality over time. Specifically, we take advantage of the fact that schools can choose to contract with private companies of varying nutritional quality to prepare the school lunches. About 12 percent of California public schools contract with a private lunch company during our study period. School employees completely prepare the meals in-house for 88 percent of the schools.

To determine the quality of different private companies, nutritionists at the Nutrition Policy Institute analyzed the school lunch menus offered by each company. The nutritional quality of the menus was scored using the Healthy Eating Index (HEI). The HEI is a continuous score ranging from zero to 100 that uses a well-established food component analysis to determine how well food offerings (or diets) match the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The HEI is the Department of Agriculture’s preferred measure of diet quality, and the agency uses it to “examine relationships between diet and health-related outcomes, and to assess the quality of food assistance packages, menus, and the US food supply.” The average HEI score for the U.S. population is 63.8, while the median HEI score in our study is 59.9. In other words, the typical private company providing public school lunch in CA is a bit less healthy than the average American diet.

We measure the relationship between having a lunch prepared by a standard (below median HEI) or healthy (above median HEI) company relative to in-house preparation by school staff. Our model estimates the effect of lunch quality on student achievement using year-to-year changes between in-house preparation of school meals and outside vendors of varying menu quality, within a given school. We control for grade, school, and year factors, as well as specific student and school characteristics including race, English learner, low family income, school budget, and student-to-teacher ratios.

We find that in years when a school contracts with a healthy lunch company, students at the school score better on end-of-year academic tests. On average, student test scores are 0.03 to 0.04 standard deviations higher (about 4 percentile points). Not only that, the test score increases are about 40 percent larger for students who qualify for reduced-price or free school lunches. These students are also the ones who are most likely to eat the school lunches.


How the quality of school lunch affects students’ academic performance

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The main goal of the law was to raise the minimum nutritional standards for public school lunches served as part of the National School Lunch Program. The policy discussion surrounding the new law centered on the underlying health reasons for offering more nutritious school lunches, in particular, concern over the number of children who are overweight. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in five children in the United States is obese.

Surprisingly, the debate over the new law involved very little discussion as to whether providing a more nutritious school lunch could improve student learning. A lengthy medical literature examines the link between diet and cognitive development, and diet and cognitive function. The medical literature focuses on the biological and chemical mechanisms regarding how specific nutrients and compounds are thought to affect physical development (e.g., sight), cognition (e.g., concentration, memory), and behavior (e.g., hyperactivity). Nevertheless, what is lacking in the medical literature is direct evidence on how nutrition impacts educational achievement.

We attempt to fill this gap in a new study that measures the effect of offering healthier public school lunches on end of year academic test scores for public school students in California. The study period covers five academic years (2008-2009 to 2012-2013) and includes all public schools in the state that report test scores (about 9,700 schools, mostly elementary and middle schools). Rather than focus on changes in national nutrition standards, we instead focus on school-specific differences in lunch quality over time. Specifically, we take advantage of the fact that schools can choose to contract with private companies of varying nutritional quality to prepare the school lunches. About 12 percent of California public schools contract with a private lunch company during our study period. School employees completely prepare the meals in-house for 88 percent of the schools.

To determine the quality of different private companies, nutritionists at the Nutrition Policy Institute analyzed the school lunch menus offered by each company. The nutritional quality of the menus was scored using the Healthy Eating Index (HEI). The HEI is a continuous score ranging from zero to 100 that uses a well-established food component analysis to determine how well food offerings (or diets) match the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The HEI is the Department of Agriculture’s preferred measure of diet quality, and the agency uses it to “examine relationships between diet and health-related outcomes, and to assess the quality of food assistance packages, menus, and the US food supply.” The average HEI score for the U.S. population is 63.8, while the median HEI score in our study is 59.9. In other words, the typical private company providing public school lunch in CA is a bit less healthy than the average American diet.

We measure the relationship between having a lunch prepared by a standard (below median HEI) or healthy (above median HEI) company relative to in-house preparation by school staff. Our model estimates the effect of lunch quality on student achievement using year-to-year changes between in-house preparation of school meals and outside vendors of varying menu quality, within a given school. We control for grade, school, and year factors, as well as specific student and school characteristics including race, English learner, low family income, school budget, and student-to-teacher ratios.

We find that in years when a school contracts with a healthy lunch company, students at the school score better on end-of-year academic tests. On average, student test scores are 0.03 to 0.04 standard deviations higher (about 4 percentile points). Not only that, the test score increases are about 40 percent larger for students who qualify for reduced-price or free school lunches. These students are also the ones who are most likely to eat the school lunches.


How the quality of school lunch affects students’ academic performance

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The main goal of the law was to raise the minimum nutritional standards for public school lunches served as part of the National School Lunch Program. The policy discussion surrounding the new law centered on the underlying health reasons for offering more nutritious school lunches, in particular, concern over the number of children who are overweight. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in five children in the United States is obese.

Surprisingly, the debate over the new law involved very little discussion as to whether providing a more nutritious school lunch could improve student learning. A lengthy medical literature examines the link between diet and cognitive development, and diet and cognitive function. The medical literature focuses on the biological and chemical mechanisms regarding how specific nutrients and compounds are thought to affect physical development (e.g., sight), cognition (e.g., concentration, memory), and behavior (e.g., hyperactivity). Nevertheless, what is lacking in the medical literature is direct evidence on how nutrition impacts educational achievement.

We attempt to fill this gap in a new study that measures the effect of offering healthier public school lunches on end of year academic test scores for public school students in California. The study period covers five academic years (2008-2009 to 2012-2013) and includes all public schools in the state that report test scores (about 9,700 schools, mostly elementary and middle schools). Rather than focus on changes in national nutrition standards, we instead focus on school-specific differences in lunch quality over time. Specifically, we take advantage of the fact that schools can choose to contract with private companies of varying nutritional quality to prepare the school lunches. About 12 percent of California public schools contract with a private lunch company during our study period. School employees completely prepare the meals in-house for 88 percent of the schools.

To determine the quality of different private companies, nutritionists at the Nutrition Policy Institute analyzed the school lunch menus offered by each company. The nutritional quality of the menus was scored using the Healthy Eating Index (HEI). The HEI is a continuous score ranging from zero to 100 that uses a well-established food component analysis to determine how well food offerings (or diets) match the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The HEI is the Department of Agriculture’s preferred measure of diet quality, and the agency uses it to “examine relationships between diet and health-related outcomes, and to assess the quality of food assistance packages, menus, and the US food supply.” The average HEI score for the U.S. population is 63.8, while the median HEI score in our study is 59.9. In other words, the typical private company providing public school lunch in CA is a bit less healthy than the average American diet.

We measure the relationship between having a lunch prepared by a standard (below median HEI) or healthy (above median HEI) company relative to in-house preparation by school staff. Our model estimates the effect of lunch quality on student achievement using year-to-year changes between in-house preparation of school meals and outside vendors of varying menu quality, within a given school. We control for grade, school, and year factors, as well as specific student and school characteristics including race, English learner, low family income, school budget, and student-to-teacher ratios.

We find that in years when a school contracts with a healthy lunch company, students at the school score better on end-of-year academic tests. On average, student test scores are 0.03 to 0.04 standard deviations higher (about 4 percentile points). Not only that, the test score increases are about 40 percent larger for students who qualify for reduced-price or free school lunches. These students are also the ones who are most likely to eat the school lunches.


How the quality of school lunch affects students’ academic performance

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The main goal of the law was to raise the minimum nutritional standards for public school lunches served as part of the National School Lunch Program. The policy discussion surrounding the new law centered on the underlying health reasons for offering more nutritious school lunches, in particular, concern over the number of children who are overweight. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in five children in the United States is obese.

Surprisingly, the debate over the new law involved very little discussion as to whether providing a more nutritious school lunch could improve student learning. A lengthy medical literature examines the link between diet and cognitive development, and diet and cognitive function. The medical literature focuses on the biological and chemical mechanisms regarding how specific nutrients and compounds are thought to affect physical development (e.g., sight), cognition (e.g., concentration, memory), and behavior (e.g., hyperactivity). Nevertheless, what is lacking in the medical literature is direct evidence on how nutrition impacts educational achievement.

We attempt to fill this gap in a new study that measures the effect of offering healthier public school lunches on end of year academic test scores for public school students in California. The study period covers five academic years (2008-2009 to 2012-2013) and includes all public schools in the state that report test scores (about 9,700 schools, mostly elementary and middle schools). Rather than focus on changes in national nutrition standards, we instead focus on school-specific differences in lunch quality over time. Specifically, we take advantage of the fact that schools can choose to contract with private companies of varying nutritional quality to prepare the school lunches. About 12 percent of California public schools contract with a private lunch company during our study period. School employees completely prepare the meals in-house for 88 percent of the schools.

To determine the quality of different private companies, nutritionists at the Nutrition Policy Institute analyzed the school lunch menus offered by each company. The nutritional quality of the menus was scored using the Healthy Eating Index (HEI). The HEI is a continuous score ranging from zero to 100 that uses a well-established food component analysis to determine how well food offerings (or diets) match the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The HEI is the Department of Agriculture’s preferred measure of diet quality, and the agency uses it to “examine relationships between diet and health-related outcomes, and to assess the quality of food assistance packages, menus, and the US food supply.” The average HEI score for the U.S. population is 63.8, while the median HEI score in our study is 59.9. In other words, the typical private company providing public school lunch in CA is a bit less healthy than the average American diet.

We measure the relationship between having a lunch prepared by a standard (below median HEI) or healthy (above median HEI) company relative to in-house preparation by school staff. Our model estimates the effect of lunch quality on student achievement using year-to-year changes between in-house preparation of school meals and outside vendors of varying menu quality, within a given school. We control for grade, school, and year factors, as well as specific student and school characteristics including race, English learner, low family income, school budget, and student-to-teacher ratios.

We find that in years when a school contracts with a healthy lunch company, students at the school score better on end-of-year academic tests. On average, student test scores are 0.03 to 0.04 standard deviations higher (about 4 percentile points). Not only that, the test score increases are about 40 percent larger for students who qualify for reduced-price or free school lunches. These students are also the ones who are most likely to eat the school lunches.


How the quality of school lunch affects students’ academic performance

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The main goal of the law was to raise the minimum nutritional standards for public school lunches served as part of the National School Lunch Program. The policy discussion surrounding the new law centered on the underlying health reasons for offering more nutritious school lunches, in particular, concern over the number of children who are overweight. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in five children in the United States is obese.

Surprisingly, the debate over the new law involved very little discussion as to whether providing a more nutritious school lunch could improve student learning. A lengthy medical literature examines the link between diet and cognitive development, and diet and cognitive function. The medical literature focuses on the biological and chemical mechanisms regarding how specific nutrients and compounds are thought to affect physical development (e.g., sight), cognition (e.g., concentration, memory), and behavior (e.g., hyperactivity). Nevertheless, what is lacking in the medical literature is direct evidence on how nutrition impacts educational achievement.

We attempt to fill this gap in a new study that measures the effect of offering healthier public school lunches on end of year academic test scores for public school students in California. The study period covers five academic years (2008-2009 to 2012-2013) and includes all public schools in the state that report test scores (about 9,700 schools, mostly elementary and middle schools). Rather than focus on changes in national nutrition standards, we instead focus on school-specific differences in lunch quality over time. Specifically, we take advantage of the fact that schools can choose to contract with private companies of varying nutritional quality to prepare the school lunches. About 12 percent of California public schools contract with a private lunch company during our study period. School employees completely prepare the meals in-house for 88 percent of the schools.

To determine the quality of different private companies, nutritionists at the Nutrition Policy Institute analyzed the school lunch menus offered by each company. The nutritional quality of the menus was scored using the Healthy Eating Index (HEI). The HEI is a continuous score ranging from zero to 100 that uses a well-established food component analysis to determine how well food offerings (or diets) match the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The HEI is the Department of Agriculture’s preferred measure of diet quality, and the agency uses it to “examine relationships between diet and health-related outcomes, and to assess the quality of food assistance packages, menus, and the US food supply.” The average HEI score for the U.S. population is 63.8, while the median HEI score in our study is 59.9. In other words, the typical private company providing public school lunch in CA is a bit less healthy than the average American diet.

We measure the relationship between having a lunch prepared by a standard (below median HEI) or healthy (above median HEI) company relative to in-house preparation by school staff. Our model estimates the effect of lunch quality on student achievement using year-to-year changes between in-house preparation of school meals and outside vendors of varying menu quality, within a given school. We control for grade, school, and year factors, as well as specific student and school characteristics including race, English learner, low family income, school budget, and student-to-teacher ratios.

We find that in years when a school contracts with a healthy lunch company, students at the school score better on end-of-year academic tests. On average, student test scores are 0.03 to 0.04 standard deviations higher (about 4 percentile points). Not only that, the test score increases are about 40 percent larger for students who qualify for reduced-price or free school lunches. These students are also the ones who are most likely to eat the school lunches.


How the quality of school lunch affects students’ academic performance

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The main goal of the law was to raise the minimum nutritional standards for public school lunches served as part of the National School Lunch Program. The policy discussion surrounding the new law centered on the underlying health reasons for offering more nutritious school lunches, in particular, concern over the number of children who are overweight. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in five children in the United States is obese.

Surprisingly, the debate over the new law involved very little discussion as to whether providing a more nutritious school lunch could improve student learning. A lengthy medical literature examines the link between diet and cognitive development, and diet and cognitive function. The medical literature focuses on the biological and chemical mechanisms regarding how specific nutrients and compounds are thought to affect physical development (e.g., sight), cognition (e.g., concentration, memory), and behavior (e.g., hyperactivity). Nevertheless, what is lacking in the medical literature is direct evidence on how nutrition impacts educational achievement.

We attempt to fill this gap in a new study that measures the effect of offering healthier public school lunches on end of year academic test scores for public school students in California. The study period covers five academic years (2008-2009 to 2012-2013) and includes all public schools in the state that report test scores (about 9,700 schools, mostly elementary and middle schools). Rather than focus on changes in national nutrition standards, we instead focus on school-specific differences in lunch quality over time. Specifically, we take advantage of the fact that schools can choose to contract with private companies of varying nutritional quality to prepare the school lunches. About 12 percent of California public schools contract with a private lunch company during our study period. School employees completely prepare the meals in-house for 88 percent of the schools.

To determine the quality of different private companies, nutritionists at the Nutrition Policy Institute analyzed the school lunch menus offered by each company. The nutritional quality of the menus was scored using the Healthy Eating Index (HEI). The HEI is a continuous score ranging from zero to 100 that uses a well-established food component analysis to determine how well food offerings (or diets) match the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The HEI is the Department of Agriculture’s preferred measure of diet quality, and the agency uses it to “examine relationships between diet and health-related outcomes, and to assess the quality of food assistance packages, menus, and the US food supply.” The average HEI score for the U.S. population is 63.8, while the median HEI score in our study is 59.9. In other words, the typical private company providing public school lunch in CA is a bit less healthy than the average American diet.

We measure the relationship between having a lunch prepared by a standard (below median HEI) or healthy (above median HEI) company relative to in-house preparation by school staff. Our model estimates the effect of lunch quality on student achievement using year-to-year changes between in-house preparation of school meals and outside vendors of varying menu quality, within a given school. We control for grade, school, and year factors, as well as specific student and school characteristics including race, English learner, low family income, school budget, and student-to-teacher ratios.

We find that in years when a school contracts with a healthy lunch company, students at the school score better on end-of-year academic tests. On average, student test scores are 0.03 to 0.04 standard deviations higher (about 4 percentile points). Not only that, the test score increases are about 40 percent larger for students who qualify for reduced-price or free school lunches. These students are also the ones who are most likely to eat the school lunches.


How the quality of school lunch affects students’ academic performance

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The main goal of the law was to raise the minimum nutritional standards for public school lunches served as part of the National School Lunch Program. The policy discussion surrounding the new law centered on the underlying health reasons for offering more nutritious school lunches, in particular, concern over the number of children who are overweight. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in five children in the United States is obese.

Surprisingly, the debate over the new law involved very little discussion as to whether providing a more nutritious school lunch could improve student learning. A lengthy medical literature examines the link between diet and cognitive development, and diet and cognitive function. The medical literature focuses on the biological and chemical mechanisms regarding how specific nutrients and compounds are thought to affect physical development (e.g., sight), cognition (e.g., concentration, memory), and behavior (e.g., hyperactivity). Nevertheless, what is lacking in the medical literature is direct evidence on how nutrition impacts educational achievement.

We attempt to fill this gap in a new study that measures the effect of offering healthier public school lunches on end of year academic test scores for public school students in California. The study period covers five academic years (2008-2009 to 2012-2013) and includes all public schools in the state that report test scores (about 9,700 schools, mostly elementary and middle schools). Rather than focus on changes in national nutrition standards, we instead focus on school-specific differences in lunch quality over time. Specifically, we take advantage of the fact that schools can choose to contract with private companies of varying nutritional quality to prepare the school lunches. About 12 percent of California public schools contract with a private lunch company during our study period. School employees completely prepare the meals in-house for 88 percent of the schools.

To determine the quality of different private companies, nutritionists at the Nutrition Policy Institute analyzed the school lunch menus offered by each company. The nutritional quality of the menus was scored using the Healthy Eating Index (HEI). The HEI is a continuous score ranging from zero to 100 that uses a well-established food component analysis to determine how well food offerings (or diets) match the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The HEI is the Department of Agriculture’s preferred measure of diet quality, and the agency uses it to “examine relationships between diet and health-related outcomes, and to assess the quality of food assistance packages, menus, and the US food supply.” The average HEI score for the U.S. population is 63.8, while the median HEI score in our study is 59.9. In other words, the typical private company providing public school lunch in CA is a bit less healthy than the average American diet.

We measure the relationship between having a lunch prepared by a standard (below median HEI) or healthy (above median HEI) company relative to in-house preparation by school staff. Our model estimates the effect of lunch quality on student achievement using year-to-year changes between in-house preparation of school meals and outside vendors of varying menu quality, within a given school. We control for grade, school, and year factors, as well as specific student and school characteristics including race, English learner, low family income, school budget, and student-to-teacher ratios.

We find that in years when a school contracts with a healthy lunch company, students at the school score better on end-of-year academic tests. On average, student test scores are 0.03 to 0.04 standard deviations higher (about 4 percentile points). Not only that, the test score increases are about 40 percent larger for students who qualify for reduced-price or free school lunches. These students are also the ones who are most likely to eat the school lunches.



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