SNMCS Webinar Series – Meeting the Updated Nutrition Standards & Quality of School Lunches

SNMCS Webinar Series – Meeting the Updated Nutrition Standards & Quality of School Lunches


This webinar series presents key findings
from the School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study. This webinar focuses on whether school lunches
met the updated nutrition standards and the nutritional quality of the lunches. The first webinar in the series provides an
overview of the study, and four other webinars present key findings related to school meal
program operations; school meal costs and revenues; dietary intakes of school meal participants
and nonparticipants; and satisfaction with school meals and plate waste. Starting in school year 2012-13, the school
meal programs began to undergo widespread changes, including updated nutrition standards
for meals, additional lunch reimbursement for meals that met the standards, and rules
affecting the price charged for full-price lunches. The School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study was
the first, comprehensive national assessment of the programs since these major reforms
began. The study collected data in school year 2014–15,
which was the first year that school meals had to meet all of the updated nutrition standards. As part of the study, school nutrition managers
completed a Menu Survey for one school week. The Menu Survey collected detailed information
about the foods provided to students in reimbursable meals each day, including food descriptions,
portion sizes, and other information needed to assess the food and nutrient content of
the meals. The final sample included more than 1,200
schools and 5,700 daily lunch menus. Data were also collected and analyzed for
school breakfasts, but this webinar focuses on lunches. The findings described in this webinar are
based on two analyses. One that estimated the percentage of daily
and weekly lunch menus that met the updated nutrition standards, and another that examined
the nutritional quality of the lunches using the Healthy Eating Index-2010. First, we’ll look at the extent to which
school lunches met the updated nutrition standards. The updated nutrition standards were designed
to better reflect the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and improve the nutritional quality
of school meals. The standards include daily and weekly meal
pattern requirements that specify minimum amounts of food to be offered each day and
over the course of the week—for example, for fruits, vegetables, and grains. They also set restrictions on the types of
foods allowed in lunches—for example, the types of milk allowed and requiring all grains
to be whole grain-rich. And lastly, they include dietary specifications
that set minimum and maximum calorie levels and limits on saturated fat and sodium. The findings presented in this webinar focus
on compliance with a subset of the requirements for lunches. This slide shows the percentage of daily lunch
menus across all schools that met daily meal pattern requirements. All lunch menus met the requirement for milk,
and 95 percent met the requirement for fruits. 91 percent of lunch menus met the daily requirement
for meats/meat alternates, while about 80 percent met the requirements for vegetables
and grains. 91 percent of menus offered only allowed types
of milk, which included fat-free milk and unflavored low-fat milk. After these data were collected, USDA provided
schools with flexibility in meeting the milk requirement by allowing flavored, low-fat
milk. If this flexibility had been in place in 2014–15,
virtually all daily lunch menus would have met this requirement. Virtually all weekly lunch menus met the weekly
requirement for milk, and 92 percent met the requirement for fruits. Just under 80 percent of menus met the weekly
vegetables requirement. The weekly requirements for meats/meat alternates
and grains were more challenging to meet—and this was particularly true for middle and
high schools. Depending on the ages of the students served,
schools may have to offer more than the daily minimum amounts required for grains and meats/meat
alternates on some days in order to meet the associated weekly requirements. Overall, 58 percent of weekly lunch menus
met requirement for meats/meat alternates, and just under half met the requirement for
grains. Between 92 and 95 percent of weekly lunch
menus met the weekly requirements for dark green, starchy, red and orange, and other
vegetables. A smaller proportion of weekly menus—79
percent—met the weekly requirement for legumes. 27 percent of weekly lunch menus offered only
whole grain-rich items. This requirement took effect for the first
time in school year 2014–15 when data for this study were collected. However, schools may have had a waiver for
meeting this requirement, and instead, had to meet a relaxed requirement that at least
half of grains were whole grain-rich. The majority—or 87 percent—of weekly lunch
menus met this relaxed requirement for whole grains. On average over the week, 93 percent of lunch
menus complied with the limit on saturated fat. 72 percent of lunch menus complied with the
limit on sodium specified in the first target. The percentage of weekly lunch menus that
met the calorie specifications was lower at 41 percent—meaning that less than half of
weekly menus had an average calorie level that fell within the specified calorie range. Although, these findings varied by school
type. On average over the week, 47 percent of lunch
menus in elementary schools and 42 percent in middle schools had
Menus that did not meet the specified calorie range either fell below the minimum calorie
level or exceeded the maximum calorie level, which are shown here in the top and bottom
portion of each bar. For elementary and middle schools, it was
more common for lunch menus to exceed the maximum calorie level than to fall below the
minimum calorie level. The pattern was reversed for high schools,
where it was more common for menus to fall below the minimum calorie level than to exceed
the maximum. Next, we’ll look findings from a separate
analysis that examined the nutritional quality of school lunches before and after the updated
nutrition standards were in place. We used the Healthy Eating Index (or HEI)
2010 to examine the nutritional quality of school lunches. The HEI-2010 assigns scores to lunches based
on consistency with key recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This includes scores for 9 adequacy components
which reflect key food group such as fruits, vegetables, dairy, and whole grains; 3 moderation
components which focus on limiting sodium, empty calories and refined grains; and a total
score that measures overall nutritional quality. HEI scores are expressed as a percentage of
a maximum possible score, and scores closer to 100% indicate lunches of higher nutritional
quality. This figure shows total HEI-2010 scores for
lunches before the updated standards were in place in school year 2009–10 and after
the updated standards were in place in 2014–15. The total HEI score for lunches increased
significantly between the two points in time, from 58 percent of the maximum to 82 percent
after the updated standards were implemented. This indicates that the updated standards
improved the nutritional quality of school lunches and made them more consistent with
the Dietary Guidelines, which is what they were intended to do. The large increase in the total HEI score
was driven by increases in scores for a number of the adequacy components included in the
HEI. As shown in red here, scores for 7 of the
9 adequacy components in the HEI increased significantly after the updated standards
were in place. Remember, scores closer to 100 percent indicate
higher nutritional quality. As shown on the left side, the largest increases
were for whole grains, greens and beans, and total fruit. For the remaining adequacy components, scores
either increased slightly or stayed relatively constant over time. For school year 2014–2015, you’ll see
that the scores for whole grains, total fruit, and whole fruit scores increased to 95 percent
or more of the maximum scores, indicating that the concentrations of these components
in school lunches were very consistent with the recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines. There were also significant improvements in
the scores for the moderation components. For these components, higher scores mean lower
concentrations of refined grains, empty calories, and sodium in school lunches. Scores for all 3 of these components increased
significantly between school year 2009–10 and school year 2014–15, meaning that the
concentrations of refined grains, empty calories, and sodium decreased over time, making the
lunches healthier. Sodium scores at both points in time were
rather low in relation to the maximum score. However, the score for sodium almost tripled,
which reflects a substantial improvement in the sodium content of lunches after the first
sodium target was in effect. More information on these findings, as well
as findings for other study objectives can be accessed on FNS’s website using the link
shown here. This includes study reports, infographics,
and additional webinars, including one that provides additional details on the methods
used to assess compliance with the nutrition standards.