Association Between State Laws Governing School Meal Nutrition Content and Student Weight Status

Stringent school meal standards may help improve student weight status, particularly among those who receive free or reduced-price lunches.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets standards for the National School Lunch Program. In January 2012, it issued new standards to increase the number and variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; and to reduce trans fats and calories in school lunches. Prior to these updates, however, some states had laws that met or exceeded USDA guidelines.

This study sought to assess whether stricter school nutrition standards were inversely associated with adolescent weight status of students participating in the school lunch program.

Key Findings:

  • Students who obtained free/reduced-price lunches In states that did not exceed USDA standards, were almost twice as likely to be obese (26.0%) compared to those who did not eat school lunches (13.9%).
  • Differences between the weight of school lunch participants and that of nonparticipants was smaller in states that exceeded USDA standards (21.1% obese and 17.4% obese, respectively).

The researchers found little evidence that students compensated for school meal laws by purchasing snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages from vending machines.

“The evidence supporting stringent school meal standards is far from conclusive," these authors write, "but this study provides promising signs of the potential for the USDA updated standards to improve student weight status.”

The study sample included 4,870 8th-grade students in 40 states. Students who received free or reduced-price lunches tended to be of lower socioeconomic status, other than non-Hispanic White, and less likely to live in suburban areas.