School Cafeterias Healthier Than Lunches From Home


The old saying might be “Mother knows best,” but not apparently when it comes to school lunches. Recent research shows school cafeteria lunches are healthier than lunches brought from home. Yes, the bland food placed on cafeteria trays tends to be more nutritious than items packed by parents.

Approximately 50 million children attend elementary and secondary public schools in the U.S. About 60 percent of those kids purchase a school lunch, whereas the remaining 40 percent bring their lunch from home.

The study, conducted by a group from Virginia Tech University and published in the November Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, involved pre-K and kindergarten students at three school in the state. The research team made a list of all foods and drinks provided by the schools and brought to school from home by children during one school week. During the five-day period, the group listed 1,314 meals. They also determined that about 43 percent of the students brought home-packed lunches and the remainder ate the lunch provided in the school cafeterias. The nutritional value of all the meals was analyzed.

As a guide for their analysis of the nutritional content, the researchers used the 2012-2013 National School Lunch Program Standards (There are new 2014-15 school lunch standards that are still being phased in.) The researchers determined that the packed lunches from home were considerably higher in calories, sugar, carbohydrates, Vitamin C, fat, saturated fat and iron than the lunches provided by the schools. However, the school lunches contained more protein, fiber, sodium, vitamin A and calcium than the lunches from home.

“We found that packed lunches were of less nutritional quality than school lunches,” reported Alisha Farris, a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Tech University who was the lead researcher. She noted that they observed a spectrum of lunch contents. “There were some really healthy packed lunches. But overall, they were pretty unhealthy.”

The school lunches contained an average of 512 calories, whereas the meals from home had 17 percent more (about 608). Lunches from home often contained more fat, desserts and sugary drinks than the school lunches. The research team also found that meals brought from home were less likely to include fruits, vegetables or milk. They also tended to include more salty snacks like chips and crackers.

The findings contained no surprises for Connie Diekman, Washington University in St. Louis director of university nutrition. She noted that the research provided results that largely replicated other studies that were conducted to show the positive benefits of providing school lunches.

Diekman acknowledged that it was startling to see a higher sodium content found in the school lunch. However, “the nutritional pluses of the school lunch — more fiber, vitamin A and less sugar and saturated fat — make the [nutritional] value aspect of school lunch better,” she said.

Farris and those who used to open their lunch box or sack and make a face recognize one limitation (i.e. flaw) in studies like this. They do not verify that the children actually ate what was in the lunch. So, while the content of lunches from the school cafeterias were deemed to be healthier Than Lunches From Home, it is not clear the children ate any of the healthier items.

By Dyanne Weiss

Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior
Web MD
Headlines & Global News