Dietary Effects of Menu Choices in the National School Lunch Program
Childhood and adolescence are unique periods of growth and development. In addition to maturing physically, children begin to make independent choices about when, where, and what they eat. Good nutrition during childhood and adolescence plays a key role in assuring adequate growth and development, preventing the long-term risk of chronic disease, and enhancing health and well-being. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) school meal programs play an important role in children’s diets and can thus influence their weight status and health. On average, children obtain more than one third of their daily energy intake from meals consumed at school during the school year (Briefel et al 2009). The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is one of the largest government food assistance programs with the primary objective to “safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children.” The program seeks to provide nutritious lunches at low-cost to all children, and for free to qualifying low-income children. As a result, making school lunches healthier may potentially impact a large number of children across different socioeconomic groups. Menu planning requirements and setting nutrition standards for the school meal programs can influence only the foods and nutrients offered to children in participating schools, not what is actually consumed. Thus, the challenge to those planning meals and setting standards is to design meals offered that enhance school lunch participants’ selection and consumption of nutritious foods. The objective of this research is to evaluate the effect of foods offered in school lunches on the foods consumed at lunch by NSLP participants. More specifically, the model we have developed enables us to analyze the response of schoolchildren’s nutrient intake to foods and nutrients offered at lunch. We use data from the third School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study (SNDA-III), which provides comprehensive and up-to-date information on characteristics of students’ and their parents, the school meal programs, the school environments that affect the food programs, the energy and nutrient content of school meals, and the contributions of school meals to students’ diets. Our preliminary estimates show that there are significant between and within school variations in students’ nutrient intakes. The nutrient composition of the menu offered has a less consistent effect across the various outcomes. However we found that the nutrient offered at school during lunch does have a positive and significant effect on the intake of the same nutrient consumed by students at school.
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