Processed and Packed: How Refined Are the Foods That Children Bring to School for Snack and Lunch?

Published:October 03, 2020DOI:



      Increasing consumption of highly processed foods has been associated with adverse health outcomes among children. In the US, children consume up to half of their daily energy intake at school.


      We sought to characterize foods that children bring from home to school according to processing level and to evaluate the effectiveness of a school-based intervention, Great Taste Less Waste (GTLW), in reducing the proportion of energy brought from highly processed foods from home compared with control.


      Secondary data analysis of a 7-month school-based, cluster-randomized trial.


      Third- and fourth-grade students (n = 502, mean age: 9.0 ± 0.62 years) at 10 public elementary schools in Eastern Massachusetts (school year 2012-2013).


      GTLW included a 22-lesson classroom curriculum, homework activities, monthly parent newsletters, a food shopping and packing guide for parents, food demonstrations, school-wide announcements, and a poster contest.

      Main outcome measures

      The energy content of foods brought to school was estimated from digital photographs, and foods were assigned to 1 of 3 processing levels (less processed or unprocessed, moderately processed, or highly processed) based on an established classification system.

      Statistical analyses performed

      The percentage of energy brought from foods categorized into each processing level was calculated and compared pre- and postintervention using hierarchical linear models.


      Most of the food brought from home to school was highly processed (70% of food energy brought). Foods categorized as snack foods and desserts contributed the greatest percentage of total energy to the highly processed category at baseline and follow-up (72% and 69%, respectively). Energy from foods brought for snack tended to be more highly processed than those brought for lunch. No significant differences were observed from pre- to postintervention in the GTLW group compared with control for the percentage of energy brought from highly processed foods in adjusted models (β: −1.1, standard error: 2.2, P = .6) or any other processing level.


      Highly processed foods were prevalent in home-packed lunches and snacks, and these patterns persisted after a targeted intervention. Further research is needed to identify strategies to improve the healthfulness of foods brought from home to school.


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      S. A. Blondin is a postdoctoral fellow, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, MA.


      RF. AlSukait is an assistant professor, Department of Community Health Sciences, College of Applied Medical Sciences, King Saud University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia


      R. Bleiweiss-Sande is postdoctoral fellow, Department of Health, Behavior and Society, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD.


      C. D. Economos is a professor, Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Boston, MA.


      J. P. Goldberg is a professor, Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Boston, MA.


      L. Tanskey is a postdoctoral teaching scholar in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing, & Nutrition Sciences at North Carolina State University.