Healthier School Lunches ARE WORKING!
Last month I posted a series about American school lunches and the changes they have undergone during Michelle Obama’s leadership. The lessons we can learn from this “experiment” in good childhood nutrition are applicable all over the world. However, at the time I was writing, there was no scientific report yet out about the impact of these changes on kids, although I did share about one inspirational case study. That report was released just days after my post on the subject!
Lessons from the Lunchroom: Childhood Obesity, School Lunch, and the Way to a Healthier Future is a report by Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, PhD, MHA and Jeffrey K. O’Hara, PhD that was released at the end of February. This report highlights that although healthier school lunches on their own will not solve the childhood obesity epidemic or make our kids instantly healthy, they do have a meaningful impact. Kids who eat the healthier school lunches consume more fruits and vegetables, which is really important when so many kids today eat less than one serving of fruits and vegetables per day.
Obesity is a huge problem for the children of today. Obese children are ten times more likely to become obese adults. With one third of kids in America overweight, this means we are raising a generation of unhealthy children who will become unhealthy adults. The United States alone spends $210 billion treating obesity-related diseases every year. And those are just the obesity-related diseases, not the figure for all diseases that could be prevented with a healthy diet. This affects everyone in society, as we are all affected by the economy that bears the brunt of this heavy burden.
Minorities are especially at risk, with African American kids 43% more likely to be obese and Hispanic American kids 59% more likely to become obese. Interestingly enough, minorities are also those groups most likely to be granted free or reduced lunch status, as minority groups in America have a greater likelihood of having a lower socioeconomic status. In a surprising twist of fate, this could actually be a good thing – it means they are most likely to benefit from positive, healthy changes to school lunch regulations.
Lessons from the Lunchroom reveals some surprising proof that healthier school lunches have a meaningful impact on kids who consume them. The report analyzes kids’ eating habits over time and concentrated on kids who consistently eat school lunches, i.e. kids on the free or reduced lunch program. This study found that kids in the fifth grade who receive free or reduced lunches ate three more servings of fruits and vegetables per week than their peers. This benefit carried forward into the future as well, with the study finding these same kids ate more fruits and vegetables than their peers three years later.
Three more servings per week of fruit and vegetables on the face of it may not sound like a lot, but with 30% of 6-year-olds consuming fruit less than once daily and nearly 20% of 6-year-olds consuming vegetables less than once daily, adding an extra three servings of fruit and vegetables per week into kids’ diets can make a huge impact on their overall nutrition and health.
Furthermore, this study confirms yet again that positive dietary habits formed young continue to impact kids. It is never too late to start teaching kids good nutrition habits! However, the younger kids are, the more likely the changes are to stick. Repetition helps as well. Kids who take a fruit or vegetable with their lunch every single day are more likely to eat that fruit or vegetable and are also more likely to form a lasting habit.
Remember, as taxpayers we are all paying for school lunches. School lunches are subsidized not only directly, in the form of free or reduced lunch programs, but also indirectly, through agricultural subsidies. Later in life taxpayer dollars help underwrite the healthcare system that pays for obesity-related diseases. The health of our nation’s youth depends on us making a statement and pushing for healthy change!
This is of concern to all of us, now. This is not some nebulous issue or even something that requires you as an individual to overhaul your local school lunch program (although I applaud you if you do attempt this!). This is an issue that each and every one of us has a stake in and has a say on. The report’s press release says it well:
By September 30, 2015, Congress must again reauthorize the National School Lunch Program and related programs—another chance for Congress to improve school nutrition. UCS recommends that Congress maintain the gains made in the 2010 law, while increasing funding to programs that support serving nutritious produce in schools. Congress should also increase the federal reimbursement rate for school lunches to assist schools with providing healthier lunches.
So go forth and contact your representatives in Congress! Let them know what you think and agitate for change. Together, they will listen to us. Together, we can make a change.
The Union of Concerned Scientists also published a snazzy infographic summarizing the report, which you can share with your friends: