Improved school lunch programs produce fitter students with better eating habits.

School meal programs have been the target of plenty of ridicule. (Mystery meat, anyone?) Kids don’t want the stuff served up in school cafeterias, especially when they have access to tasty (if not wholesome) treats in vending machines and at fast food restaurants, right?

Not so fast, say researchers at the University of Illinois. Their findings, published in JAMA Pediatrics, show that when school lunches are done right, students won’t jump at the chance to compensate with junk food. The ultimate payoff, though, is more fit students and a lower prevalence of childhood obesity.

Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, researchers analyzed information about school lunch program participation for nearly 5,000 eighth grade students in 40 states. They found that in states that exceeded U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards for the health of school meals, obesity rates among students who received free or reduced-price lunches were very similar to obesity rates among those who did not.

“Our study examined whether states with stronger school meal standards had a smaller difference in obesity prevalence between students who obtained school lunch and those who did not,” said lead researcher Daniel R. Taber. “In general, students who obtain lunch at school are more likely to be obese, at least in part because they often come from low-income households that are at a higher risk for obesity, so we wanted to see if that disparity is reduced in states with healthier school meal standards.”

Research also showed that kids participating in these improved lunch programs did not use more nutritious school meals as an excuse to eat less healthy food outside the cafeteria.

“People who criticize school nutrition reforms often say that students can easily compensate for changes (‘If you try to make school meals more healthy, students will just go to McDonald’s instead’),” said Taber. “We wanted to test that critique—do students compensate when school meals are healthier?—and the simple answer was no. There was no evidence that students were buying more fast food or more sweetened beverages from other sources.”

He added, “The students who lived in states with stronger school meal standards consumed approximately the same amount of fast food and sweetened beverages compared to students in other states. The bottom line is that positive changes to school meals were not negated by students’ diet away from school.”

The USDA creates strict guidelines for school meal programs, which were updated in March of 2012, and the schools that go above and beyond what is required generally have the most success.

“The unique thing about our study is that we were analyzing states that were ahead of the curve—in 2006-07, they had already passed their own standards that exceeded USDA standards at the time, and their laws included requirements similar to updated USDA standards,” Taber said.

The outlook is good for the future of school lunch programs, even if progress is incremental. “Schools nationwide are implementing healthier meals already as part of the USDA’s updated standards,” Taber said. “It’s been interesting to watch the reaction all year as new standards were implemented—there has definitely been a lot of praise and a lot of criticism.

“It’s too early to know if the ongoing changes are having a positive impact on students’ health, but by looking at these states that were ahead of the curve, it gives us an early glimpse of whether healthier school meals have the potential to reduce obesity,” he added.

Not all school meal programs are created equal, and many have room to improve in meeting USDA and kid-approved standards. But this study offers evidence of how successful they can be.

The National School Lunch Program provides free or reduced-price lunches to millions of children in need across the country. “[M]any students rely on school meal programs because they have limited access to healthy foods at home and in their community,” Taber explained.

Sometimes, school meals are the main source of a child’s nutritional intake. Meal programs can be a great equalizer for students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. The better these programs become, the more students will be able to take advantage of the health and social benefits that a good meal can provide.