Trends in the School Lunch Program: Changes in Selection, Nutrition & Health
There has been significant media attention on the issue of childhood obesity, leading policymakers to reform the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) to include stricter nutritional requirements. We use data on school lunch menus to document improvements in the nutritional quality of school meals between 1991 and 2010. We then evaluate how this change in nutritional content maps into obesity outcomes, using panel data on a nationally representative cohort of children, tracking them from kindergarten entry in fall 2010 through the end of fifth grade in spring 2016. We find little evidence that participation in the school lunch program leads to weight gain, as measured by changes in obesity, overweight, and BMI. These results suggest that improvements in the nutritional content of school lunches have been largely successful in reversing the previously negative relationship between school lunches and childhood obesity. Unrelated to school lunch participation, we find a strong relationship between mother’s obesity status and both the level and growth of children’s obesity, especially for girls and among high-SES families.
We gratefully acknowledge funding from the IRP RIDGE Center for National Food and Nutrition Assistance Research. We thank Patricia Anderson, Lisa Barrow and Kristin Butcher for helpful comments. We thank Elora Ditton for research assistance and Elizabeth Debraggio for research contributions. We are grateful to seminar participants at Northwestern University, the Brookings Institution, and at the Institute for Research on Poverty, USDA RIDGE, and the Association for Public Policy and Management for helpful comments, suggestions, and feedback. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.