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We all know the sobering statistics: 30 percent of kids in the U.S. are overweight or obese. We also know that consuming high-calorie, low nutrient foods like fast food, processed foods and sugary drinks, spending too much time watching TV or in front of devices, and lack of exercise and sleep are to blame. But there’s another topic that’s been debated in recent years: is school lunch to blame for childhood obesity?
Is cafeteria food healthy?
The USDA’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP), a program that provides federally subsidized school lunch and breakfast, serves more than 30 million kids in the U.S. every day.
Something that surprised me as I was conducting research is that 50 percent of the calories kids consume are at school.
This is particular important for kids who receive free and reduced lunch since what they eat at school can make up a significant amount of the nutrition they get all day.
When the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was passed, the goal was to provide healthier school lunches.
Schools participating in the NSLP made some positive changes to their menus like adding more fruits and vegetables and whole grains, limiting the amount of calories and reducing the amount of sodium in meals.
The good news is that the changes seemed to work.
In April 2019, the USDA released the “School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study,” which found the Healthy Eating Index, or the nutritional quality of school lunches, increased 41 percent between school years 2009-2010 and 2014-15.
Another win is that studies show when school lunches became healthier, kids ate more entrees, vegetables and fruit.
In December 2018 however, the Trump administration rolled back the school lunch standards, giving schools even more flexibility to serve foods that are within a budget but only worsen our kids’ health.
With the new changes in effect, schools can now offer 1% chocolate milk and strawberry milk and keep the same levels of sodium in meals, instead of reducing it.
School are also only required to have half of the grains on the menu be whole grains.
Whether the schools stick to the old guidelines or not, I’m not convinced that school lunch is healthy to begin with.
Let’s take my kids’ school lunch menu as an example.
Nearly all of the items that are offered are highly-processed, made with factory-farmed animal products, and are frozen foods that come out of a package.
Take a look at some of the foods they offer:
- crispy chicken patty
- general tso’s chicken
- beef nachos with tortilla chips
- hot dogs
- tater tots
- processed deli meats and cheeses
- popcorn chicken
- chicken nuggets
- mozzarella sticks
- hamburgers and cheeseburgers
- French toast sticks
- Bosco sticks (breadsticks)
There are also several items on the school lunch menu that are high in sugar, including:
- Chocolate milk (24 grams in 1 cup)
- Apple juice (24 grams in 1 cup)
- Grape jelly (12 grams per 1 Tbsp)
- Baked beans (12 grams in 1 cup)
- Syrup (for pancakes and waffles for lunch) (11 grams per tbsp)
Of course, diets high in processed foods and sugar are associated with increased rates of childhood obesity.
Another factor to consider is that with a menu that’s made up of mostly foods like chicken nuggets, mozzarella sticks, macaroni and cheese and other kid-friendly foods, we’re explicitly teaching our kids this is a healthy way to eat.
Instead of having a plate made where fruits and vegetables are front and center, in the school cafeteria, they’re presented in a way that makes them look like they’re a side dish.
Plus, take a look at the nutritional value of some of these foods.
Consider the pancakes that the USDA encourages schools to offer as “breakfast for lunch.” With only 2 grams of protein, 1 gram of fiber and 3 grams of sugar, it’s definitely not what our kids should be eating.
School lunch might be healthy, but fruits and vegetables are being thrown in the trash
Another concern with school lunch is the amount of food that is wasted everyday.
One study estimates that the food thrown in the garbage at school accounts for $1.2 billion annually.
If you’ve had lunch with your kid (something I recommend you do), you know how crowded, loud and chaotic it is, particularly in the elementary schools.
According to a January 2016 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, kids who had 20 minutes or less to eat lunch consumed 13 percent less of their entrees, 12 percent less of their vegetables, and 10 percent less of milk compared to kids who had 25 minutes or more to eat. There was also more food waste for kids who had less time to eat.
Yet more time to eat lunch, quieter cafeterias, and less crowding is associated with higher consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, a January 2019 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found.
So although kids might be offered healthy school lunches, if they’re not eating them, what’s the point?
If fruits and vegetables are being tossed, kids aren’t getting the fiber and water content these foods provide which satisfy hunger and aid in weight control.
Furthermore, if kids aren’t eating foods that fill them up, chances are they’re making up for it with processed snacks at other times of the day.
Is school lunch to blame for childhood obesity?
A 2009 report out of Northwestern University (before the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed), suggests kids who eat school lunch are more likely to be overweight or obese than those who bring lunch from home.
What’s more, kids who are eligible for free and reduced lunch weigh significantly more than kids who are ineligible by the end of first grade.
The research that has looked specifically at girls is also important to note.
According to an April 2011 study in JAMA Pediatrics, the average Body Mass Index (BMI) for girls from low-income families who consumed lunches in the NSLP was the same for those who did not. However, girls who consumed the lunches gained weight faster and the differences between the two groups were significant.
What is the school’s role in preventing childhood obesity?
When it comes to the responsibility of schools to offer healthy school lunches and do their part in preventing childhood obesity, parents say they play a significant role.
According to a June 2013 survey by Kaiser Permanente, 90 percent of Americans say schools should play the biggest community role in fighting childhood obesity.
Plus, according to a January 2019 survey by Revolution Foods, a provider of healthy school meals, 66 percent of parents say that while they and the schools should share the responsibility of offering and teaching kids about nutrition, they look to the schools to encourage healthy eating habits and offer healthy, delicious meals throughout the year.
Preventing childhood obesity starts with parents
If kids eat lunch every day at school, or even once in awhile, schools certainly play a role in the food that is being served, how it is served and the environment in which it is consumed.
Although I believe that schools have some responsibility for preventing childhood obesity, like anything else when it comes to our kids, childhood obesity starts with us.
In fact, a June 2019 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior suggests that parents play an integral role in preventing childhood obesity.
In the study, researchers looked at two groups of parents: a Health Education group who were mailed information about nutrition and parenting strategies to make changes and the Developing Relationships that Include Values of Eating and Exercise (DRIVE) group, made up of parents who met with a psychologist and nutritionist. This group was encouraged to plan healthy meals, reduce the amount of screen time and move more.
The result? Researchers found kids in the DRIVE group gained less weight than the less intervention group.
Kids learn from their parents so if we’re not serving healthy food, teaching healthy eating habits and encouraging our kids to move more, get sleep and have healthy lifestyle habits—and show them how we do the same— we can’t blame the schools for childhood obesity.
Here are some tips to consider.
Serve fruits and vegetables as much as possible
Do your best to include fruits and vegetables at every meal and snack, which will give your kids the nutrition they need, help satisfy their hunger, and prevent overeating.
Make healthy food visible and accessible
According to the 2010 White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity report, “children’s choices depend on what is most visible and easily accessible.”
So resist the urge to stock your pantry with chips, crackers and cookies and other types of fake food and put healthy food at eye level.
Also, spend 30 minutes or so on the weekend to wash and cut up fruits and vegetables and store them in clear glass containers front and center in the refrigerator.
Cook healthy meals
Studies show kids who consistently eat meals with their families are healthier kids overall and are less likely to become obese.
Cooking healthy meals also shows kids what real food and a healthy plate look like and can help prevent picky eating.
Teach healthy eating habits
Lead by example and show kids how to eat slowly and mindfully, eat sitting at the table (instead of in the car or in front of the TV,) and how to recognize their hunger and satiety signals. Also, avoid using food as a reward.
Kids should get 60 minutes of exercise everyday and although it can be challenging to find the time, your kids won’t be motivated to be active if you’re not.
Try to take walks after dinner, have an indoor “dance party” on rainy or snow days or play Twister.