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U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service

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School Meal Participation and Children's Food Consumption Patterns

Understanding the role of school meal program participation on children’s food consumption patterns and risk of obesity is critical to improving the weight status of America’s children. The most complete and up-to-date data to address these issues are from the nationally representative data Mathematica collected in the 2005 third School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study (SNDA-III). The data were used to address two key research questions:

(1) Does participation in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) or School Breakfast Program (SBP) affect children’s body mass index (BMI)?

(2) Does school meal participation influence children’s consumption of junk foods and beverages obtained from locations away from school and home?

We determined the effects of participation in school meal programs on key factors related to childhood obesity including dietary behaviors—consumption of beverages, low-nutrient energy-dense foods, fruits, and vegetables—weight status, and BMI. In terms of specific patterns, the research team found the following:

  • Participation in the SBP was associated with a significant increase in students’ calorie intake at breakfast, so that participants’ energy intake appeared to be spread out a bit more evenly over the course of the day, compared with nonparticipants.
  • NSLP participation was associated with reduced intake of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), for both elementary and secondary school students.
  • At the elementary school level, NSLP participants consumed a lower percentage of their calories from low-nutrient energy-dense foods and beverages than nonparticipants (22 versus 25 percent).
  • School meal program participants consumed some low-nutrient energy-dense foods more frequently than nonparticipants. In the case of the SBP, participants’ intake of calories from baked goods and desserts was significantly greater than that of nonparticipants.

There was no evidence that participation in the school lunch program was significantly associated with students’ BMI. However, participation in the school breakfast program was associated with lower BMI levels. In other words, children who regularly ate school breakfasts had a lower mean BMI than students who rarely or never ate school breakfasts. One explanation for this relationship between SBP participation and lower BMI is that regular breakfast program participants are more likely to eat breakfast than are nonparticipants, and breakfast consumption is associated with lower weight.


"School Meal Program Participation and Its Association with Dietary Patterns and Childhood Obesity" (July 2009)
"School Food Environments and Practices Affect Dietary Behaviors of US Public School Children." Journal of the American Dietetic Association (February 2009)
"Consumption of Low-Nutrient, Energy-Dense Foods and Beverages at School, Home, and Other Locations Among School Lunch Participants and Nonparticipants." Journal of the American Dietetic Association (February 2009)
"Association Between School Food Environment and Practices and Body Mass Index of US Public School Children" Journal of the American Dietetic Association (February 2009)
"School Breakfast Program But Not School Lunch Program Participation Is Associated with Lower Body Mass Index." Journal of the American Dietetic Association (February 2009)