Federal health authorities give American schools good grades for improving the nutritional quality of food served in their cafeterias — but there's still room for improvement, they said.
A report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 79% of schools served at least two kinds of non-fried vegetables and 78% sold at least two kinds of fruits (including 100% fruit juice) each day for lunch. Those figures, from 2014, represent a substantial improvement from 2006, when only 63% of schools had two or more quality vegetable choices and 66% had at least two kinds of fruit.
Schools did an even better job of meeting federal nutrition standards for whole-grain foods: 97% offered them every day at breakfast, and 94% served them every day at lunch, CDC researchers reported. (The definition of a whole-grain food used in the CDC's School Health Policies and Practices Study was slightly different from the one used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which sets school lunch standards, but both emphasize use of whole grains and enriched flour.)
The third major focus of the CDC report was sodium, which the USDA says should be used more sparingly in school meals. There were signs of improvement on that score as well: Among the 55% of schools that prepared the meals they served in their own cafeterias, more than half have made efforts to reduce sodium. To wit, 68% adopted low-sodium recipes, 65% used herbs and other seasonings in place of salt, 54% opted for fresh or frozen vegetables instead of the canned variety and 52% said when they used canned vegetables, they picked a low-sodium product.
"School meals are healthier now than ever before," CDC Director Tom Frieden said in a statement. "We've made real progress, but there is much more to do."
Improving the quality of meals served at school would go a long way toward improving the quality of children's diets, since students eat up to half their calories at school, according to the report. Plenty of research has shown that American kids fall short of federal guidelines for healthy eating — more than 90% eat too much sodium, and pretty much none eats enough vegetables. These poor eating habits put students at risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and other chronic health conditions.
So CDC researchers examined data gathered from food-service managers and other staff at a nationally representative sample of elementary, middle and high schools. They focused on nine specific practices to boost consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and reduce consumption of sodium.
They found that 98% of schools had adopted at least one of those practices by 2014, and nearly three-quarters had adopted at least four. That includes the 25% that had embraced seven or more diet-improving practices.
The one that schools were least likely to have adopted was offering self-service salad bars. These would help schools "meet the requirements for amount and variety of vegetables offered," yet they were found in only 35% of high schools, 31% of middle schools and 29% of elementary schools, according to the report.
But that could soon change. Efforts are underway to boost those figures, including a public-private partnership called Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools, which has installed about 4,000 of them, the study authors wrote.
They also flagged a USDA-led initiative to help schools find ways to enhance flavor while reducing sodium.
But they also recognized that some schools aren't yet equipped to embrace all of the USDA's nutrition standards. For instance, "many schools need new kitchen equipment to store, prepare, and serve fruits and vegetables," they wrote.
The study was published in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
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