Newswise — In 2010 Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, allowing the USDA to make critical nutrition reforms to school-lunch and -breakfast programs for the first time in more than 30 years. The legislation was spearheaded by then-first lady Michelle Obama as part of her “Let’s Move!” campaign, geared toward improving nutrition in schools and reducing child obesity.
Almost immediately, the law was met with opposition, from claims that the new requirements were too difficult for schools to meet, to concerns that kids wouldn’t eat the healthier food options.
Now, a new study co-authored by Punam Ohri-Vachaspati, an Arizona State University professor of nutrition, and published by the American Journal of Public Health has found that not only are students eating the healthier food, but in some cases, school-meal participation actually increased.
“I think this paper is really timely,” Ohri-Vachaspati said. “Before other things are at stake, we need to be putting this kind of data out there. We need to say, ‘Hey, this is actually working and actually doing what we want it to do.’”
For the study, Ohri-Vachaspati and fellow researchers looked at school-meal participation rates — both breakfast and lunch — at roughly 130 low-income, high-minority public elementary, middle and high schools in four New Jersey cities from school year 2008-2009 to school year 2014-2015.
The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was implemented in school year 2012–2013, giving the researchers a generous seven-year window to compare school-meal participation rates, four years before the law was enacted and three years afterward.
They found that national school-lunch participation rates among students differed little over the years, increasing slightly from 70 percent to 72 percent. School-breakfast participation rates were stable from the beginning of the study period until school year 2013–2014, when they increased from 52 percent to 59 percent.
In regards to concerns that school-lunch participation would decrease as a result of the new law, Ohri-Vachaspati said, “There’s really been no change. School breakfast, on the other hand, has picked up quite a bit,” because of a provision in the law that allows schools serving majority low-income students to offer free breakfast to all students.