July 28 (UPI) -- The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has improved the "dietary quality" of schoolchildren participating in the National School Lunch Program, according to a study published Tuesday by JAMA.
The findings are based on the performance of nearly 6,400 children on the Healthy Eating Index-2010. The assessment measures adherence to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, on a zero to 100 scale, with the higher number indicating increased compliance, researchers said.
Following congressional passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, mean scores on the eating index among low-income students rose to 54.6 from 42.7, the researchers said.
Researchers also saw similar increases among low middle-income students -- to 54.8 from 40.4 -- and middle high-income students -- to 55.5 from 42.7 -- they said.
"The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act resulted in improved nutritional quality of lunches consumed by students who participate in the National School Lunch Program after policy implementation," study co-author Kelsey Kinderknecht told UPI.
"[Our] findings suggest that implementing nutrition standards for school lunches that align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans can result in substantially improving the nutritional quality of lunch eaten for millions of children," said Kinderknecht, a graduate student at the University of Washington School of Public Health.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 mandated changes to the nutrition standards of the National School Lunch Program, Kinderknecht said.
With the changes, lunches must now include more whole grains, low-fat or fat-free milk and fruits and vegetables, and less "starchy" vegetables -- like potatoes -- and foods high in sodium and trans fats, she and her co-authors said.
Before schools across the United States were closed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program served more than 30 million students daily, Kinderknecht said.
For this study, she and her co-authors analyzed data on 6,389 students 5 to 18 years old -- from kindergarten to 12th grade -- enrolled in schools that participated in the National School Lunch Program.
The participants were gleaned from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in the three years prior to the 2010 passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, and six years after its implementation, through 2016, the researchers said.
In general, the healthy eating index scores remained in the mid-30s -- for example, 34 to 35 for children from low-income homes and 34 to 36 for children from low middle-income homes -- for students who did not participate in the National School Lunch Program, they said.
"Our study shows that prior to the pandemic, the National School Lunch Program was associated with substantial improvements in the healthfulness of foods consumed by children participating in the program," Kinderknecht said.
Despite school closures this past spring due, school food service professionals across the country have continued to provide food to children "in creative, accessible and safe ways," she said.
"However, it is likely that the recent tripling of food insecurity rates in households with children in association with the pandemic can partly be attributed to children not being in a school that serves lunch every day," Kinderknecht said.