14-year study shows school lunches among highest-quality meals in US

(NEW YORK) — A 14-year study comparing the diets of American children and adults showed that food from schools actually came out on top.

In looking at diets from 2003-04 to 2017-18, a study by the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University analyzed meals eaten by thousands of American children and adults in a range of sociodemographic groups. They analyzed the overall nutritional quality in meals served at locations such as restaurants, workplaces and schools.

More than 20,000 children ages 5 to 19 and nearly 40,000 adults 20 or older were included in the study.

An overall quality score was calculated using the American Heart Association diet score and the Healthy Eating Index 2015. Using those calculations, diets were classified as poor (less than 40% adherence), intermediate (40-79.9% adherence) or ideal (80% or more adherence).

Dr. Amanda Benarroch, a resident in the ABC News medical unit, explained that “children had worse overall diet quality than adults with the notable exception of schools, which had the highest overall diet quality of any source included in the study.”

The study’s authors suggested that improving access to grocery stores remains a top priority when it comes to improving Americans’ diets, especially as the pandemic limited children’s access to meals at school.

The study also showed that restaurants needed to improve, with 65% of adult meals and 80% of meals served to children considered nutritionally poor. Over the course of the study, restaurant meals for children improved slightly while adult means remained basically stagnant — the worst overall in diet quality.

Most of the improvement seen in school meals occurred after 2010, which the study attributed to increased offerings of whole grains, fruits, greens and beans, as well as eliminating more sugar-sweetened beverages, refined grains, added sugar and saturated fats.

Benarroch pointed out that that change “coincided with the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which mandated nutrition standards.”

The diet quality observed at locations for entertainment, sports or recreation, including food trucks, appeared to worsen over the course of the study.

“By 2017 to 2018, diet quality of foods from schools increased significantly and equitably and provided the highest mean diet quality of any major food source,” the study concluded. “Modest improvements were identified in diet quality for foods consumed from grocery stores, small improvements for foods consumed from restaurants, and stable or worsening diet quality for foods consumed from other sources, all with persistent or increasing disparities.”

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