Fruit and vegetables at school helps low income kids (but not high income kids)

According to a study executed by Meghan Longacre, PhD and Madeline Dalton, PhD of Dartmouth Hitchcock’s Norris Cotton Cancer Center and The Hood Center for Children and Families, fruits and vegetables provided at school deliver an important dietary boost to low income adolescents. Still, the evidence also shows that a different strategy may be needed to have the same positive effect on high income kids. The opposite was true for those high income adolescents who consumed fewer fruits and vegetables when school was in session, compared to summer months. While in school, all students consumed fruits and vegetables with similar frequency regardless of income level.

From the press release:

According to Longacre, “Innovation in school food offerings for kids has emphasized increased consumption of fruits and vegetables and it’s working for low income kids, but the evidence shows that a different strategy may be needed to have the same positive effect on high income kids.”

The Dartmouth research team, led by Dalton and Longacre, surveyed 1,885 NH and VT middle school students and their parents by phone. Using a unique longitudinal study design, they created a type of “natural experiment” by randomly allocating participants to be surveyed at different times of the year. This created comparable groups of adolescents who were, or were not, being exposed to school food by virtue of when they were surveyed. This facilitated comparison of fruit and vegetable consumption during the school months and over the summer. The survey asked the adolescents to recall fruit and vegetable consumption in the previous seven days. And no, fries don’t count.

Previous studies demonstrated that kids from low income households eat fruits and vegetables less often than their high income peers, but whether school food mitigates the situation was an open question. By comparing consumption in and out of school by income group, Longacre and Dalton provide key data to inform national policy about resource allocation for meals in schools.

According to Dalton, “This study confirms that the national and regional school food programs provide an important source of fruits and vegetables for low income adolescents, which we know is a key indicator of dietary quality.” Longacre adds, “Schools clearly have a role in providing healthy foods to children. Our data suggest that the most vulnerable students are benefitting the most from school food.”

Abstract of the research:

Objective

The aim of this study is to examine whether school food attenuates household income-related disparities in adolescents’ frequency of fruit and vegetable intake (FVI).

Method

Telephone surveys were conducted between 2007 and 2008 with adolescent-parent dyads from Northern New England; participants were randomly assigned to be surveyed at different times throughout the year. The main analysis comprised 1542 adolescents who typically obtained breakfast/lunch at school at least once/week. FVI was measured using 7-day recall of the number of times adolescents consumed fruits and vegetables. Fully adjusted linear regression was used to compare FVI among adolescents who were surveyed while school was in session (currently exposed to school food) to those who were surveyed when school was not in session (currently unexposed to school food).

Results

Mean FVI was 8.0 (SD = 5.9) times/week. Among adolescents unexposed to school food, household income and FVI were strongly, positively associated. In contrast, among adolescents exposed to school food, FVI was similar across all income categories. We found a significant cross-over interaction between school food and household income in which consuming food at school was associated with higher FVI among adolescents from low-income households versus lower FVI among adolescents from high-income households.

Conclusion

School food may mitigate income disparities in adolescent FVI. The findings suggest that the school food environment positively influences FVI among low-income adolescents.

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