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School Lunches Lower in Fat, Sugar, and Iron Than Packed Lunches, Study Finds

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Lunches served by schools participating in the National School Lunch program contain less fat and saturated fat than meals students bring from home, a new study by Virginia Tech University finds, but they also contain less iron.

To reach their conclusions, researchers from the university's Family Nutrition Program observed meals in three rural Virginia elementary schools over a five-day period, tabulating ingredients on a checklist. According to a news release:

"Using descriptive statistics researchers described the nutritional quality of the lunches. A total of 1,314 lunches were observed, with 42.8% packed and 57.2% provided by the schools. Energy, carbohydrates, fat, saturated fat, sugar, vitamin C, and iron were significantly higher for packed lunches compared to school lunches, whereas protein, sodium, fiber, vitamin A and calcium were significantly lower for packed lunches compared to school lunches."

There are some limits to the study, however. Researchers observed what was on students' plates; not what they actually consumed. Some school food directors have contended that new nutrition standards for school meals have also led to an increase in discarded food, particularly uneaten fruits and vegetables.

Those standards, developed under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, require less salt, fat, and sugar and an increase in whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.

The study raises some questions. If a large portion of your students are bringing their lunches, how do you involve them in school health efforts? And, if your students are motivated to eat healthier, how do they pass those messages to their parents who are probably the ones filling those brown bags with fat and sugar?

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