A 16-year study compared the nutritional impact of food served in America.

Schools are intended to improve our brains, but a recent study suggests they may be the best place for our bodies, too. After analyzing 16 years of American diets, researchers found that meals eaten at schools had higher dietary value than meals eaten anywhere else.

The paper—led by researchers at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University—looked at pretty much everything eaten by tens of thousands of American children and adults starting in 2003. As of 2018, the majority of meals people were consuming were considered poor from a nutritional standpoint. At restaurants, 65 percent of adult meals and 80 percent of children's meals were considered nutritionally poor. Work wasn't much better: 51 percent of the meal eaten there were deemed to have poor dietary quality.

Students eating lunch in school cafeteria
Credit: JGI/Tom Grill/Getty Images

Grocery stores were inching in the right direction: When shopping for their own food, adults purchased less nutritious foods 33 percent of the time, and children's meals were labeled as poor only 45 percent of the time. But schools did the best: Only 24 percent of school meals weren't up to nutritional snuff.

"Schools are now the single healthiest place Americans are eating," Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School and senior author of the study, stated. "This finding is particularly timely given widespread school closures over the last year from COVID-19, and current efforts to safely and fully reopen schools. Our results suggest substantial nutritional harms for millions of kids who have not been consistently receiving meals at school and must rely on other sources. These harms also disproportionately affect low-income, Black and Latinx children."

Interestingly enough, if you don't remember your own meals being quite so nutricious, you may be right. The study also found that the dietary value of school meals began increasing significantly in 2010 after the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was signed into law. Back in 2003, 57 percent of school meals were of poor nutritional quality. "Improvement in schools was especially striking, large, and equitable across population subgroups," Mozaffarian continued. "This is clearly linked to the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, a powerful lesson on how a single federal policy can improve both nutrition and equity for millions of Americans."

That said, parents shouldn't start patting themselves on the back quite yet. The paper also found that, over the course of a full year, only 9 percent of a child's calories come from school.