Participation in school meal programs correlates with the risk of excessive weight gain, according to a study of 21,260 children who were followed from kindergarten through the 8th grade. That study, “The Influence of School Nutrition Programs on the Weight of Low-Income Children: A Treatment Effect Analysis,” was recently published in the journal Health Economics by Dr. Wen You, associate professor of agricultural and applied economics in the Virginia Tech college of agriculture & life sciences, and Kristen Capogrossi, a former doctoral student at Virginia Tech and now an economist at RTI International.
Updated 8-15 4 p.m.: It is, however, important to note that the data analyzed in this study was before new meal patterns were implemented under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
Among the study’s findings was that school children most likely to be overweight came from families who participated in both the school breakfast and lunch programs consistently throughout their elementary and intermediate school years. Children of the same or similar socio-economic status who did not participate at the same level did not show the same weigh gains.
The study’s abstract notes that “short-term participation in only [the National School Lunch Program] increases the probability that children will be overweight, and these results are more prominent in the South, Northeast, and rural areas” and “participation in both programs from 1st through 8th grade increases the probability that these students will be overweight.”
Those conclusions are not meant to dismiss school nutrition programs as counterproductive, You emphasized in an exclusive interview with Food Management, where she expressed frustration with some media coverage of the study that she says misrepresented the conclusions as showing that “Michelle Obama’s [school meal] program makes kids fat.”
“They [the media coverage] are not staying true to what we are trying to say, but it’s out of our control,” You told FM. “On the contrary, this paper basically wanted to call for more support of the [school meal] program.”
The root of the problem, she emphasized, is not the nutrition standards that are the program goal but inadequate implementation that can lead to poor nutrition choices for lack of attractive alternatives. The paper calls for more effective strategies that can enable schools to provide not just the healthy food that meets the standards but is also acceptable and appetizing to children.
“Policymakers need to consider all the aspects of school meal programs—from availability and affordability to nutritional content and tastiness,” You said in an official release from Virginia Tech announcing the study’s publication. “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.”
She expanded on that theme in her interview with FM.
“We’re not saying [school meal] programs are bad,” she said. “They are starting to accomplish their first goal, which is fighting hunger. It’s just that this new goal of nutrition standards was added because they are now accomplishing their first goal so well and now we need to figure out a more creative way to modify or restructure the program to accomplish both nutrition and fighting hunger. We can’t say it’s one thing or the other. We need to make sure those two are all there.”
As for any implied criticisms of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, You said this: “We don’t have the data to evaluate the 2010 nutrition standards. We did demonstrate that there’s a big gap to fill and we need more efforts. Observing recent pushback from schools, for example, for the whole grain requirement, there are obviously implementation struggles by schools and we do need to help them. Just raising standards and giving [schools] a little more subsidy does not solve the problem. We need industry support, we need government and school and academic work together to figure it out.”
The study itself found that long-term participation in school meal programs posed the largest risk of being overweight. It controlled for the self-selection and income effects to examine school meal programs’ influence on the change in students' body mass index and utilized statistical methods to match students who were eligible and chose not to participate in the school meal programs with students who chose to participate to ensure comparability.
It also examined a subgroup of students who changed their program participation status along the way and confirmed the short-term risk of being overweight imposed by the school lunch program.
The School Nutrition Association has this to say regarding the study: “The data analyzed in this study was collected between 1998 and 2007—long before efforts by school nutrition professionals and updated standards positively transformed the nutrition and quality of school meals,” said SNA President Becky Domokos-Bays, PhD, RD, SNS. “These days, school meals must meet age-appropriate calorie maximums and limits on unhealthy fat. Schools must offer students whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and fat-free or low-fat milk, ensuring all students have access to meals that help them maintain a healthy lifestyle. Any study evaluating the actual impact of school meals on student health must take into account these positive changes.”
The study was funded in part by the Research Innovation and Development Grants in Economics Center for Targeted Studies and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
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