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Trends in the School Lunch Program: Changes in Selection, Nutrition & Health (WP-23-18)

Therese Bonomo and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach

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. The researchers use data on school lunch menus to document improvements in the nutritional quality of school meals between 1991 and 2010. They 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. They 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, the authors 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.

Therese Bonomo, Department of Economics and IPR, Northwestern University

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, Margaret Walker Alexander Professor of Human Development and Social Policy and IPR Director and Fellow, Northwestern University

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