Strong School Meal Standards May Help Reduce Obesity Among Kids From Lower-Income Families


A recent study from Bridging the Gap links strong nutrition standards for school meals with lower obesity rates, especially among students who were eligible for free and reduced-price lunches.

Researchers found that students who received free or reduced-price lunches—who tend to be from lower-income families—had higher obesity rates than those who did not participate in the lunch program, but the gap was much smaller in states with strong meal standards.

For example, in states with weaker standards, 26 percent of students who received free or reduced-price lunches were obese, compared with 14 percent of students who did not participate in the lunch program. But in states with stronger standards, the difference was much smaller—21 percent of students who received free or reduced-price lunches were obese compared with 17 percent of students who did not participate.

What do these findings imply about the new school meal standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that went into effect in fall 2012, and how do they help inform efforts to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic? RWJF spoke with lead author, Daniel Taber, PhD, to put these findings into context. Taber is a co-investigator with Bridging the Gap, a research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funded the study.

Q: What does this study tell us about the impact of school meals on kids’ weight?

A: We found that strong state laws for school meals, such as those that call for a specific amount of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and limit milks to 1% or skim, have the potential to help reduce obesity rates. It confirms what we’ve learned from many other studies—that offering healthy school foods is an important strategy for reversing the childhood obesity epidemic.  


Q: You found that strong nutrition standards had a greater impact on students from lower-income families. How important is that?

A: Very important. Many students from lower-income families rely on school meals to get the nutrients they need, so it’s critical for schools to offer healthy lunches. We found that those lunches impact kids’ risk for obesity. We also found that students from lower-income families had higher obesity rates than other students, which is consistent with findings from other studies. States that had strong nutrition standards for school meals helped eliminate that disparity.


Q: What do these findings imply about USDA’s new nutrition standards for school meals that went into effect in fall 2012?

A: The new school meal standards help make sure kids get more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and low-fat dairy products, and less fat. When we conducted our study, only a small number of states had such strong standards and we found that it helped reduce obesity, especially among students from lower-income families. We obviously didn’t evaluate the new USDA standards, but our study provides early insight about the potential of new stronger standards. It suggests that implementing such standards across all states could lead to more widespread success in reducing the national childhood obesity rate.


Q: This study took place before the new national school meal standards were issued. Now that USDA’s updated standards are in place, are state laws still important?

A: Absolutely. The states we studied that went above and beyond USDA’s previous standards saw positive results. We’ve observed the same thing for state laws on school snacks and drinks—students consumed fewer calories and gained less weight when states took the initiative to pass their own strong nutrition standards for such products, standards that exceeded USDA’s requirements. 


Q: When schools offered healthier meals, did students buy more sweets, sugary drinks, or other unhealthy snacks instead?  

A: No. There’s a common concern that if you offer healthier meals, students will simply buy junk food from other sources at school or elsewhere, but we found no evidence supporting that. However, as we continue to evaluate efforts to improve school foods, we need to examine whether students compensate, including looking at nearby fast-food outlets and convenience stores.

Daniel Taber

Dan Taber, PhD, MPH

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Healthier school meals linked to healthier weight among lower-income kids in new @BTGResearch study