Winter 2014

What’s in the Bag?

Students’ lunches packed at home are heavy on snacks and sugar

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Illlustration: Ryan Snook

Kids have been bringing bag lunches to school forever. In 2014, in fact, more than 40 percent of kids brought their lunch on any given day, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service. But lately there’s more societal concern than ever about the nutritional content of those midday meals. What exactly is in those brown paper bags?

A recent study led by Jeanne Goldberg, G59, N86, a professor at the Friedman School, was among the first to investigate the kinds of food that U.S. schoolchildren routinely bring from home. The Tufts researchers looked at lunches of third- and fourth-graders in 12 Massachusetts schools and assessed how the contents stacked up against National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and Child and Adult Food Care Program (CAFCP) standards. These are federal guidelines that promote healthful diets, including foods from five categories: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein and dairy.

Most food brought from home failed to meet the mark. The majority of kids had a sandwich, a bottle of water and some packaged snack food in their bags—not too bad, right? But just 11 percent of lunches contained vegetables, and only 17 percent contained a dairy item. A mere 3 percent of kids brought milk along as a beverage (another 11 percent planned to buy their milk at school). Nearly a quarter of the lunches included a sugar-sweetened drink.

All in all, just over a quarter of the home-packed lunches met three of five NSLP standards, and only 4 percent met two of four CAFCP guidelines. “Parents serve a lot of packaged foods,” Goldberg notes. “At the extreme, there were kids whose lunches contained four or five packages of snack foods with nothing at the core.”

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