When President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, he also ushered in the first major nutrition changes in the school meal program in 15 years. Perhaps, not surprisingly, the changes received a good bit of pushback, with many arguing that healthier foods would mean fewer kids buying school lunches and big revenue losses for schools. But a new study shows otherwise.
Last week, a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and that focused on 11 Massachusetts school districts found that while schools experienced initial losses following the meal changes, longer-term revenue has not been affected. In fact, school meal participation has increased among kids from lower-income families. (Quick backgrounder: The new school meal standards ensure students are offered fruits and veggies every day, increase whole-grain offerings, limit milk to fat-free and low-fat varieties, and encourage reductions in trans fat and sodium, among many other measures. In short, these standards help kids stay healthy and help teach nutritious habits. Find more on the standards here.) This new study is the first to explore the financial impact to schools that offer both healthy meals and healthy snacks.
“This study suggests that school food revenues held steady when they have both healthy meals and snacks,” said Juliana Cohen, the study’s lead author and assistant professor in the Department of Health Sciences at Merrimack College, in a news release from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Healthy Eating Research program, which funded the study. “We found that students spent less money on snacks, but thanks to more kids participating in the lunch program, school food revenues were not impacted long-term.”
To conduct the study, Cohen and her colleagues examined revenue and participation data between 2011 and 2014 from 11 Massachusetts school districts located in urban, suburban and rural communities. The study also noted that while federal nutrition standards for school snacks (known as Smart Snacks) first went into effect in 2014, Massachusetts adopted a standard for competitive foods sold in school in 2010. That state standard went into effect in 2012 at the same time as the new federal meal standards, and so researchers could study the impact of new nutrition standards for both meals and snacks. (Snacks sold in schools are often referred to as “competitive foods” because they compete with the school meal program.)
On the financial side, the study found that while revenues declined during the first year of the new nutrition standards, they rebounded in the second year. Among the seven school districts that provided financial data for the entire study period, food service revenues decreased by 6.6 percent per student in the first year of the new standards — and that decline was attributed to fewer snack sales. But in the second year of healthier school meals and snacks, food service revenues were just 1.2 percent lower per student than one year before the nutrition standards took effect. That rebound, the study found, was driven by greater participation in the school lunch program and more school meal sales. In fact, between 2011 and 2014, researchers reported a 15-percentage point increase in school lunch participation among students eligible for reduced-price lunch.
Overall, the study found that the changes in school food revenue were statistically insignificant. Case in point: In 2011, meals contributed about $252 per student and snacks contributed about $86 per student. Fast forward to 2014 and researchers report that revenue from meals increased to about $272 per student and snacks dropped to about $64 per student. In terms of meeting the new nutrition standards, the study found that compliance increased from 30 percent in 2011 to 74 percent in 2014 across all 11 school districts.
Researchers also noted that the study’s findings support efforts to make both school meals and snacks more nutritious. In examining the data, that found that the school district with the highest school meal revenues also had the lowest competitive food revenues, while the school district with the greatest competitive food revenues also had the lowest school meal revenues. That, they wrote, “supports the growing evidence that competitive foods ‘compete’ with schools meals, further highlighting the importance of implementing nutrition standards for both school meals and competitive foods.”
The study concluded: “These results suggest that weakening the USDA school meal guidelines or Smart Snack guidelines based on school revenues or participation rates is not warranted.”
To download a full copy of the new study, visit the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.