USDA Assessment Highlights Need for School Food Reform

February 18, 2009

By Rochelle Davis, Founding Executive Director

Last month, the USDA released the results of their most recent comprehensive assessment of school food programs.  These findings demonstrate how great the need for reform is in our school food system. Below is a summary of some of the key findings in the survey:

  1. The widespread presence and consumption of  unhealthy snacks and a la cart items continues to be a problem in schools.  Specifically, the study found that 73 percent of elementary schools, 97 percent of middle schools and 100 percent of high schools offer “competitive foods” (the lingo for food offered in addition to the USDA school meal – often snack food sold in vending machines, school stores, or a la carte lines).  Over 40 percent of students consumed one or more competitive food daily with consumption increasing with grade level.  These foods continue to be low-nutrient, energy-dense food and beverages. 
  2. The study also found a relationship between the food offered and the weight status of students. Participants in school breakfast had a lower likelihood of overweight and obesity than non-participants.  Elementary students in food programs that offered French fries or dessert more than once a week were more likely to be overweight.  Students in food program that offered fresh fruits and raw vegetables consumed significantly fewer calories from low-nutrient, energy dense food.
  3. Schools were still struggling to meet federal standards. Fewer than one-third of public schools offered lunches that met the standard for total fat or saturated fat although 85 percent met standards for protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron.  Although schools are not required to offer meals that are consistent with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, the study found that only 8 percent of the schools met the standard for fiber and none met the recommendation for sodium.

Additional insights into the study can be found in this report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation [pdf], which offers charts and other study highlights.  

The February 2009 supplement to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, titled The School Food Environment, Children's Diets, and Obesity: Findings from the Third School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study, presents a comprehensive analysis of data and is available to subscribers at http://www.adajournal.org.

These findings certainly underscore the need for improvements to the school food program. Click here to see HSC’s recommendations, sign a petition in support of these recommendations and join our growing network of activists working to change the future of school food.