The 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to align nutrition standards for all foods and beverages sold in schools with the federal dietary guidelines. Healthy diets are linked to a number of children’s health outcomes, including maintaining a recommended weight, decreased risk of tooth decay and other chronic diseases, and improved school performance.
Vulnerable populations, including low-income, black, and Hispanic students, have a higher likelihood of being overweight or obese; suffer from hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, or other chronic illnesses; and have limited or uncertain access to adequate food. These and other nutrition-related issues can reduce quality of life, increase absence from school, and lead to longer-term health problems.
In addition to their critical role in student nutrition, food sales make up an important component of school budgets, and student purchases of snack foods outside of regular meal service, such as from vending machines, often generate revenue that pays for other school programs that benefit student health, such as enrichment learning and opportunities for physical activity.
In an effort to inform USDA’s update of school nutrition standards, the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project along with the Health Impact Project—both collaborations between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts—worked with Upstream Public Health, a nonprofit research and policy organization, to conduct an HIA of potential health impacts of the proposed changes on students’ school-based diets, health outcomes, and school food service revenue.
The assessment concluded that updating national nutrition standards for snack foods and beverages sold in schools could help students maintain a healthy weight without decreasing revenue. Specific key findings from the HIA included:
Based on those findings, the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project worked with stakeholders to develop recommendations for the implementation of the updated standards to maximize health benefits and minimize risks. Specifically, USDA should establish nutrition standards for:
This was the first HIA to inform a federal rule-making process. USDA incorporated nearly all of the recommendations into the interim-final rule and noted that the HIA added new information to the process by addressing a key district concern: food service revenue. USDA highlighted the importance of the HIA to the agency’s Regulatory Impact Assessment (RIA), calling it “recent, comprehensive, and groundbreaking.” The new standards went into effect in fall 2014 and are being implemented in all U.S. schools that participate in the school meal programs.