USDA study shows influence of school policies on meals’ fat content

Dec. 4—A new study released by the USDA shows the effects school policies have on fat content of school meals.

The report, Meeting Total Fat Requirements for School Lunches: Influence of School Policies and Characteristics, found that certain policies directly affect nutritional content. Those policies include:

  • Promotion of fresh fruits and vegetables or local foods was more prevalent in schools that serve meals with lower fat.
  • The availability of french fries and desserts was found more often in middle and high schools that had the highest fat content.
  • Providing low-fat milk as the only milk choice was found significantly more often in all schools that serve the lowest fat meals.
  • Meal planning method also affects fat content. Schools that use traditional meal-planning methods had higher fat content in meals. The “traditional” method is planning menus where each meal must consist of certain food components—meat, vegetable, starch, etc. In districts that use an “enhanced traditional” method, meals typically had lower fat content. The enhanced traditional method is a mix of the traditional method and using a nutrient-based method where meals are planned according to nutrient content of food items.

Other policies may indirectly affect fat content because they enable students to choose alternative foods. For example, in elementary schools where á la carte foods were available, the fat content of meals was higher. Vending machines were more prevalent in middle and high schools that serve higher fat content meals.

“Although school characteristics (rural versus urban, region, size) are not subject to policy change, they may be useful for targeting lunch improvement efforts,” the report states. “For both elementary and middle/high schools, urban schools were more highly represented in the lowest fat category, and rural schools were more predominant in the highest fat categories.”

To view the full report, go to ers.usda.gov/publications/err87.