Nearly 30 million American children get free or reduced-price meals.
Those meals, according to the USDA, cost just over $14 billion per year. That comes out to billions of meals served, at a variable but typically quite low cost to taxpayers. And a new study from researchers at Tufts University shows that may be money very well spent.
The study looked at the diets of Americans from 2003 to 2018 and found that school meals are the healthiest source of food. Researchers analyzed food from four sources: restaurants, grocery stores, schools and “other,” which includes stuff like entertainment venues and food trucks. They rated healthfulness by using two metrics: the American Health Association diet score and the Healthy Eating Index. (The latter is aligned with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.) The data came from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which is a massive survey that’s frequently used for this kind of broad study.
By 2018, which is the most recent year for which this NHANES data is available, restaurants were by far the least healthy. Researchers found that 65 percent of adult meals and a whopping 80 percent of children’s meals were ranked “poor quality,” nutritionally speaking. The grocery store category, which included home cooking, ranked at 33 percent poor quality for adults and 45 percent poor quality for children.
But school lunches were the least unhealthy of all the categories. Only children were measured in this category, but just 24 percent of school meals were found to be of poor quality. In addition, there are substantial differences in diet quality based on race and socioeconomic status, owing in large part to access and cost, in restaurants and grocery stores. In schools? That disparity disappears.
This research makes it clear how important school meals can be for children—and especially, how important their nutritional makeup is. Those restrictions may irk some, but it’s clear they’re working.