August 13, 2016
Every day, millions of kids eat government-funded breakfasts or lunches at public schools. Virginia Tech researchers found that kids who get these free school meals are more likely to become overweight or obese.
According to the study, published in the journal Health Economics, kids who live in the Northeast, South and rural America, who consume one-third to one-half of their meals at school, are most susceptible to the rising obesity epidemic.
School meal programs not as healthy as you might think
Wen You, associate professor of agricultural and applied economics at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said that while well-intentioned, these government-funded school meal programs which aim to make students healthier, are in fact doing just the opposite.
You and her team used a survey of 21,260 students who were followed from kindergarten to eighth grade. They found that children who didn’t participate in school lunch programs supported by Michelle Obama were less likely to end up with some extra padding.
On the other hand, children who consistently participated in both breakfast and lunch programs throughout their elementary and intermediate school years were most likely to end up overweight or obese.
You and her colleague, Kristen Capogrossi, a former doctoral student at Virginia Tech and now an economist at RTI International, also studied the effect of long- and short-term consumption of school meals.
The longer that students were enrolled in the program, the higher the risk. Furthermore, they reported that the most adverse effect of the government-funded school meal programs was seen in the South, the Northeast and rural areas of the country.
Students who changed their program participation status along the way were also at risk of childhood obesity, confirming the short-term risk of being overweight imposed by the school lunch program.
“The question now is what to do in order to not just fill bellies, but make sure those children consume healthy and nutritious food – or at least not contribute to the obesity epidemic,” said You.
Since 2010, Michelle Obama has led the “Let’s Move” campaign to encourage kids to live and eat healthier. Unfortunately, nothing significant has changed, and her campaign hasn’t been a huge success among students. As reported by The Daily Caller, local health officials have said that it has been hard to get children to eat this food, which “tastes like vomit,” according to some Kentucky students.
Both You’s study and Obama’s failed initiative to make school kids healthier are strong signals that there is an urgent need to improve the school meal program’s effectiveness at promoting better nutrition among children.
You noted that policymakers should take all the aspects into account when reforming school meal programs – from availability and affordability of the ingredients, to nutritional content and tastiness of the meals. Furthermore, kids should be taught the importance of a healthy diet and how to grow their own food.
“It is important to have extra policy support that will allow funding for programs such as chef-to-school and farm-to-school, as well as culinary training for cafeteria staff so kids actually enjoy eating what is ultimately prepared for them,” said You.
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