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Packed Lunches May Fall Short of Nutritional Standards, Study Finds

Since 2015, Athens students have been able to depend on at least one nutritionally-sound meal a day, thanks to Clarke County Schools’ free lunch program. However, the same may not be true for those who bring their own lunch to school. Few packed lunches meet the standards set for school meals, concluded a study on schoolchildren in Europe published in the BMJ in January.

Obesity in childhood is linked to poor attendance, low performance on tests, and increased incidence of chronic illnesses in adulthood. Many factors that can result in obesity are related to the quality of meals consumed and the amount of exercise.

 Why It’s Newsworthy: Students at home during the pandemic may not be receiving meals that fit school nutritional guidelines. 


Researchers studied one set of schools in 2006, then followed-up with as many of the same schools as possible in 2016, adding some additional schools over the course of the study.

The schools were described in terms of average eligibility for free school meals, which was also used as a socioeconomic indicator, and the percentage of students meeting expected academic standards. The latter could provide data on how nutrition correlates with academic performance.

Community Eligibility Provision

In Athens, all students are eligible for free school lunch and breakfast. Since the implementation of the Community Eligibility Provision five years ago, only about 15% of students bring lunches from home, according to Paula Farmer, director of school nutrition for the Clarke County School District.

Many students eat two of three meals a day at school, but there are no guidelines for packed lunches or meals eaten at home. “There are challenges,” Farmer said of the school meal program.

Still, Farmer acknowledges that two nutritious meals a day are better than none.  “Hungry children don’t learn,” she said.

Nutrition education differs between schools and even classrooms, so Athens-Clarke County provides tools for hands-on education for students. All 21 public schools in Athens have school gardens, provided by Keep Athens Clarke County Beautiful, an environmental committee within the city government.

“It’s a lot of planting,” said Stacy Smith, program education specialist of Keep-Athens Clarke County Beautiful. The department’s goal is not to set regulations for the use of the gardens, but rather to make sure they are available to educators who want to use them.

“Our mission is that the schools will have a usable garden, should they choose to use it,” Smith said.

Fluctuating Nutritional Guidelines

The BMJ study evaluated school meals based on standards in England that recommend eight different types of food, including protein-rich, low-fat starches, dairy, and fruits and vegetables. Sugary drinks, sweets and savory snacks were restricted.

The study was partially funded by Unilever, the parent group of several brands that distribute pre-portioned snacks and desserts like those documented in the study. The researchers said the findings might be useful to food manufacturers aiming to create products marketed for school lunches.

The BMJ survey found that the amounts of treats eaten in school dropped from 2006 to 2016, but noted that this is likely reflective of changes in the food industry. For instance, reduced portion sizes of single-serving packages are due to regulations changing over time. No reduction in portion size was mandated for single-serving chips, which may correlate with the lack of regulations in serving sizes for savory snacks.

School meal standards in the United States have faced recent reforms, but nutrition guidelines have been relaxed in Georgia. The U.S. does not have such regulations, and portion sizes have actually been increasing in recent years.

Janani Rammohan is a senior majoring in journalism in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Georgia.



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