Elementary School Participation in the United States Department of Agriculture's Team Nutrition Program is Associated with More Healthful School Lunches

Team Nutrition schools offer more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (and less salty snacks) than schools that do not participate in the training and technical assistance program.

The $11.1 billion National School Lunch Program of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides nutritious meals to more than 31.6 million school children daily (2011). In January 2012, the USDA updated its nutritional standards to require more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; limit milk to lower-fat options; and reduce fat, sodium, and calories in school meals.

The USDA’s Team Nutrition (TN) program provides training and technical assistance to help school nutrition professionals prepare and serve meals that are nutritious and appeal to students. The program seeks to build support for school environments conducive to healthful eating and physical activity. In 2010, some $5.4 million in funding was awarded to 19 states.

Researchers used survey data from elementary public schools (2006–2010) conducted as part of the RWJF-funded Bridging the Gap research program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

They found participation in the TN program higher in schools in the South (49%), compared to the Northwest (38%), Midwest (34%), and West (30%). TN schools were more likely to offer fresh fruit, whole grains, and salads (30%–70% higher odds); and less likely to offer unhealthful foods such as salty snacks (20%–30% lower odds), compared to non-TN schools.

The authors conclude that “increasing participation in the TN program could help accelerate the changes needed to improve students’ access to healthful school lunches and help schools meet the recently revised school meal standards.”