Whether eating out or buying food from the grocery store, Americans of all ages are, for the most part, eating poorly everywhere—except at school. The information comes from a new dietary trends study, which also reveals persistent or worsening disparities in meal quality from restaurants, grocery stores, and other sources—but not school—by race, ethnicity, and income.
Published today in JAMA Network Open and led by researchers at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, the study analyzed all meals (including snacks and beverages) consumed by Americans over 16 years. By 2018, the most recent year for which national data is available, meals with the lowest nutritional quality came from restaurants, where 65% of adult meals and 80% of children’s meals were of poor quality. Entertainment venues and food trucks were next, with 44% of adult meals and 52% of children’s meals being of poor nutritional quality. At work sites, 51% of adult meals eaten were of poor dietary quality.
Grocery stores were better sources of food, with 33% of adult meals eaten and 45% of children’s meals being of poor quality. Schools were best, where only 24% of meals consumed by children were of poor nutritional quality.
“Schools are now the single healthiest place Americans are eating. 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,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School and senior author of the study.