Improving Child Nutrition Policy

Nearly one-third of U.S. children and teens are overweight or obese. Children consume a significant portion of their daily calories at school, so the nutritional quality of school meals and competitive foods is under particular scrutiny. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets nutrition standards for its two major school meal programs but currently has limited authority to set nutrition standards for competitive foods. There are no national nutrition standards that regulate all foods available to students at school.

The USDA programs provide meals to children in about 95 percent of public schools and many private schools across the country. The USDA also provides commodity foods for the school meal programs. Nutrition standards for the school meal programs were developed as part of the 1995 School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children (SMI). The USDA and an Institute of Medicine expert panel are working to update the SMI standards to incorporate the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 and the Dietary Reference Intakes standards.

The third School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study (SNDA-III), which was sponsored by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, provides the most comprehensive and up-to-date information on the overall food environment in public elementary, middle and high schools. Like the previous SNDA studies, which have been influential in shaping school nutrition policy, SNDA-III is an important resource for policy-makers who are interested in supporting healthy changes to the school food environment as a way of improving children’s diets and overall health.