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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Eating School Meals Daily Is Associated with Healthier Dietary Intakes: The Healthy Communities Study.


Background: Research on the association between school meal consumption and overall dietary intake post-Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act implementation is limited.

Objective: This study examines the association between frequency of participating in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs and children’s dietary intakes.

Design: The Healthy Communities Study was a cross-sectional observational study conducted between 2013-2015.

Participants/setting: U.S. children ages 4-15 years (n=5,106).

Main outcome measures: Dietary measures were assessed using the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey Dietary Screener Questionnaire. Dietary intake included fruit/vegetables, fiber, whole grains, dairy, calcium., total added sugar, sugar-sweetened beverages, and energy-dense foods of minimal nutritional value.

Statistical analysis: Multivariate statistical models assessed associations between frequency of eating school breakfast or lunch (every day vs. not every day) and dietary intake, adjusting for child and community-level covariates. 

Results: Children who ate school breakfast every day compared to children who ate 0-4 days/week, reported consuming more fruits/vegetables (0.1 cup/day, 95% CI: 0.01, 0.1), dietary fiber (0.4 g/day, 95% CI: 0.2, 0.7), whole grains (0.1 oz/day, 95% CI: 0.05, 0.1), dairy (0.1 cup/day, 95% CI: 0.05, 0.1), and calcium (34.5 mg/day, 95% CI: 19.1, 49.9). Children who ate school lunch every day compared to those who ate less frequently, consumed more dairy (0.1 cup/day, 95% CI: 0.1, 0.2) and calcium (32.4 mg/day, 95% CI: 18.1, 46.6).  No significant associations were observed between school meal consumption and energy-dense nutrient poor foods or added sugars.

Conclusions: Eating school breakfast and school lunch every day by U.S. schoolchildren was associated with modestly healthier dietary intakes. These findings suggest potential nutritional benefits of regularly consuming school meals.

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