Health, Kids, News

Lunches From Home Don’t Meet Nutritional Standards: Study

School lunches. Image: U.S. Department of Agriculture
School lunches. Image: U.S. Department of Agriculture

When researchers in the United States compared school lunches to home-packed lunches, parents got a failing grade.

Researchers from Tufts University, in Massachusetts, inspected lunches belonging to about 600 grade three and four students at 12 different schools in the state. They found that lunches packed at home were generally less nutritious than meals provided by schools.

School cafeterias in the United States must follow the guidelines set out by the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), a government service that provides low-cost or free lunches to students.

The guidelines require schools to serve more fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. Schools must also limit the amounts of fat, sodium (salt), and sugar in the food they serve.

The researchers found that none of the packed lunches they examined met all of the requirements on the NSLP list. Only 27 per cent of the packed lunches met at least three of the requirements. Ninety-five per cent of all the lunches did not contain a serving of vegetables.

The items most commonly packed in school lunches were sandwiches (in 59% of lunches), snack foods (42%), fruit (34%), desserts (28%), water (28%), and sugar-sweetened drinks (24%).

One in four lunches did not include a main food item, like a sandwich or leftovers. Instead, they contained packaged snacks and desserts.

The researchers said they were surprised by the amount of sugary drinks and packaged foods – like potato chips, cookies and gummy fruit snacks – they found in the lunches.

Other studies have shown that children who bring lunch from home eat fewer fruits and vegetables, less fibre, and more calories than those who take part in a school lunch program.

Since about 40 per cent of American school children bring their lunch, unhealthy food in their lunchboxes could have serious consequences. Serving nutritious food to children not only keeps them healthy and ready to learn, it also helps to establish good eating habits, and it can affect their future health.

Unfortunately, since the U.S. government passed the laws requiring schools to serve healthier meals the number of children buying school lunches has dropped by nearly four per cent.

In Canada, only 10 to 15 per cent of school children have access to school meals. There are no national rules for healthy school lunches, but most provinces have established their own guidelines.

Schools that sell food in cafeterias or vending machines must divide food into three categories based on its nutritional value: Sell Most, Sell Less, Do Not Sell.

The Sell Most category includes foods that are high in nutrients and low in fat, sugar and sodium, like fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads and pastas, lean meat, milk and low-fat yogurt.

The Sell Less list includes foods that are slightly higher in fat, sugar and sodium, but still have some nutritional value. The Do Not Sell category includes things like candy, chocolate, pop, sports drinks, ice cream, cakes and doughnuts.

Jeanne Goldberg, the professor who led the lunchbox study in Massachusetts, said the researchers recognize that parents have to consider the cost and convenience of lunch foods as well as what their children will actually eat.

“Unfortunately, these factors are not always in harmony with good nutrition,” she said.

Even if parents pack healthy lunches, there is no way to make sure their children eat them. Professor Goldberg said the study shows that it is necessary not only to help parents find lunch options that are convenient, affordable and healthy, but also to encourage children to choose those options.

Related sites

My Food Guide (Interactive tool to customize Canada Food Guide to individuals).

Healthy school lunch ideas.

By Kathleen Tilly

Writing/Discussion Prompt
What is your favourite lunch to bring to school? Write down all of the parts of your lunch and then compare it to the food guide (see related sites). Does your favourite lunch meet the nutrition requirements?

If not, what would you need to add or take away to make your lunch more nutritious?

Reading Prompt: Demonstrating Understanding
Often people don’t know that what they’re eating is not healthy.  Help to educate your friends about the food guide by creating a poster or t-shirt with the three types of food: Sell Most, Sell Less, Do Not Sell.

Junior & Intermediate
Demonstrate understanding of complex texts by summarizing important ideas and citing a variety of details to support the main idea (OME, Reading: 1.4).

Language Feature: Synonyms
When reading an ingredients list on a packaged food item, sometimes it is difficult to know what is in your food! There are often complicated and unknown ingredients, such as citric acid and corn syrup.

Sugar is a main ingredient in many junk foods. However, sugar goes by many different names. For example, it is also known as rice syrup or cane juice. What are the different names for sugar?