Nutrition assistance programs such as school meals and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are designed to provide a safety net for the dietary intake of children from low-income families. However, compared with eligible non-participants, the relationship of diet quality with school meals only and school meals + SNAP is not well understood. The objectives of the study include: (1) To explore whether and to what extent nutrition assistance program participation (school meals only and school meals + SNAP) is related to diet quality; and (2) to examine the differences of diet quality between participating in school meals only, school meals + SNAP, or non-participation among American children. Children aged 5 to 18 years old from income eligible households who participated in the 2013-2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) were included in this cross-sectional study (n = 1425). Diet quality was measured using the Healthy Eating Index (HEI)-2015 and its 13 subcomponents. A Rao-Scott Chi-square test, propensity scores approach, and Analysis of Covariance were performed. Covariates included age, sex, race/ethnicity, weight status, and family monthly poverty index. SAS survey procedures were used to incorporate the appropriate sample design weights. Participation in school meals + SNAP was not associated with higher diet quality compared to eligible non-participants or school meals-only participants. Participation in school meals + SNAP improved the intake of total dairy, but not added sugars or total vegetables compared to school meals only. Overall, school meal + SNAP participation did not significantly improve the overall diet quality of children in low-income households relative to comparable non-participants.
Keywords: Healthy Eating Index (HEI); National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES); Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); children; school meals.