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School Meal Reforms’ Impacts on Nutrition and Costs


  • How did school meal reforms affect nutrition, cost and waste?
  • We collected data from school food authorities, schools and students.
  • Nutritional quality rose, costs outpaced subsidies and waste remained stable.
The Challenge

The National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs (NSLP/SBP) underwent widespread changes beginning in school year 2012-2013. USDA needed to know how these food, nutrition and price reforms affected school food authorities and student participation.

The Approach

Abt Global in partnership with Mathematica Policy Research evaluated the changes in the first nationally representative study of the reformed school meals programs. In school year 2014-2015, the team collected data on school meal costs and revenues, student participation and nutritional quality of meals in 518 school food authorities and more than 1,200 schools, with 2,165 participating students. Observers measured how much food students wasted (plate waste) for 6,253 lunches and 3,601 breakfasts in more than 150 schools.

The Results

Findings from the School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study are in four volumes, a summary of findings, and a report on study design and methods.  Key findings include:

  • The nutritional quality of NSLP lunches, as measured by the mean Healthy Eating Index-2010 score, increased 41 percent between school year 2009-2010 and 2014-2015.
  • Cost increases for NSLP and SBP outpaced growth in federal subsidies, widening the funding gap. The average cost per NSLP lunch, for example, rose 26 percent from school year 2005-2006 to 2014-2015.
  • Students discarded a third of their vegetables and milk, unchanged from studies before the reforms.  Waste was lower when students were allowed to decline some meal components

Read the report:
School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study