Do Elementary Students Substitute Ice Cream and Baked Goods for Healthier National School Lunch Program Meal Items?

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We use variation in à la carte dessert availability to determine its impact on elementary school students’ selection of reimbursable meals and healthful meal components. On days when desserts (ice cream and baked goods) were offered, students were less likely to select a reimbursable meal, and students who purchased a dessert selected fruit significantly less often. Data were collected in the Alachua County School District (Florida) for three weeks in May of 2013. These findings suggest that students substitute desserts for reimbursable meals and the healthier fruit component. Policies, such as Smart Snacks in Schools, that regulate the nutritional content of a la carte items, but do not remove a la carte items from school lunchrooms, may be less effective than intended if such substitution occurs.

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