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School Lunches have Better Average Nutrition than Packed Lunches

Update Date: Nov 08, 2014 10:45 AM EST

In order to prevent childhood obesity, federal officials from multiple states have revamped school lunches. According to a new study, these school lunches are providing children with better average nutrition than packed lunches.

For this study, the researchers from Virginia Tech compared the nutritional content of school lunches provided by three schools during the 2012-2013 National School Lunch Program (NSLP) to the content of packed lunches. The data on the lunches were collected using an observational checklist. Each researcher was assigned 10 students' lunches to look at.

Overall, there were a total of 1,314 lunches with 57.2 percent of them being school lunches and 42.8 percent of them being packed. They found that packed lunches, when compared to schools ones, had higher levels of energy, carbohydrates, fat, saturated fat, sugar, vitamin C and iron. Packed lunches had lower levels of protein, sodium, fiber, vitamin A and calcium.

"Ours is the first study comparing packed lunches to NSLP lunches over a five-day period among pre-K and kindergarten students following the implementation of new nutrition standards," said lead author Alisha R. Farris, MS, RD, reported by the press release. "We found that both packed and school lunches almost entirely met nutrition standards, except school lunches were below energy and iron recommendations, whereas packed lunches exceeded fat and saturated fat recommendations."

The team noted that the study was limited because they could not measure how much food the children ate. Regardless, the researchers stressed the importance of helping children develop healthy eating habits.

"Habits develop in early childhood and continue into adolescence and adulthood. Therefore, this is a critical time to promote healthy eating. Determining the many factors which influence the decision to participate in the NSLP or bring a packed lunch from home is vital to addressing the poor quality of packed lunches," commented lead investigator Elena L. Serrano, PhD, Family Nutrition Program Project Director, Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise at Virginia Tech.

The study, "Nutritional Comparison of Packed and School Lunches in Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten Children following the Implementation of the 2012-2013 National School Lunch Program Standards," was published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

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