The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act has significantly improved the nutritional quality of student meals in the Renton School District, UW researchers found in a new study.

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Nutrition standards aimed at making school meals healthier appear to be working, at least in one area district, with students choosing more nutritious food and buying school meals at the same rate they did before the standards went into effect nearly four years ago, according to a new study by the University of Washington’s School of Public Health.

The study, published Jan. 4 in JAMA Pediatrics, focused on three middle schools and three high schools in the Renton School District.  The researchers looked at three years of meal data, starting before the new standards were put into place in 2012.  In all, they reviewed more than 1.7 million meal records.

The standards, championed by first lady Michelle Obama, increased the amount of whole grains, fruits and vegetables offered in school lunches, and required students to select at least one serving of fruits and/or vegetables. In Renton, the overall nutritional quality of the meals improved,  and the calorie content per gram dropped by 13 percent, according to the study.

“This was the largest change in nutritional standards in decades,” said Mary Podrabsky, a research coordinator and instructor at UW’s School of Public Health and co-author of the study. “Our main goal was to see what was happening and if the standards are working as intended. I think our study shows that they are.”

When the standards were put in place, some nutrition and education experts expressed concern that as the nutritional value of school lunches increased, fewer students would buy them. But researchers found that, in Renton, participation numbers have stayed about the same, Podrabsky said. About 47 percent of students bought school lunches before the new meal standards and 46 percent did so afterward.

“The fact that this worked with older students who have more choices, where they can leave campus, is a real powerful statement,” Podrabsky said. “Students aren’t leaving the school-lunch program in droves at all.”

The study didn’t measure what students actually ate, but other studies suggest that more students are eating healthier. A 2014 study by Harvard School of Public Health researchers, for example, found that the new standards led students to eat more fruits and vegetables.