By Kim Robson:
A recent government study has found what most parents already suspect: U.S. school lunches are unhealthy and contributing to childhood obesity. Kids who eat school lunches are more likely to be obese by the time they get to the third grade.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) funded study, published in the Journal of Human Resources, used data collected by the Department of Education during the 1998–1999 school year, three full years after Congress established the current dietary requirements for school lunches. 13,531 students were tracked, including their weight in kindergarten and third grade, and whether they ate school breakfasts, school lunches, or both.
Current USDA dietary requirements stipulate that breakfasts and lunches should contain no more than 30% calories from fat and fewer than 10% calories from saturated fat, must contain an age-appropriate number of calories, and supply certain percentages of vital nutrients like calcium and protein.
- A typical school lunch far exceeds the recommended 500 milligrams of sodium; some districts, in fact, serve lunches with more than 1,000 milligrams.
- Less than 1/3 of schools’ meals contain less than the recommended standard for fat content.
- Last year 21 million financially disadvantaged students relied on free or reduced lunch as their primary meal of the day. Up to 65% of their daily calories come from school-provided meals. Poor nutrition particularly affects the poor.
- Unbalanced nutrition leads to decreased school performance, obesity, diabetes and other health problems.
Just over 11% of the children studied were overweight in kindergarten, and 17% were overweight by the third grade. Tellingly, those who ate both school breakfast and lunch didn’t show a significant increase in weight, but eating only school lunches led to a significant increase in the probability that a child would be obese by the third grade. Participation in school breakfast programs actually led to a decrease in risk.
“Breakfasts seem to be doing well, but lunch, not so much,” says the study’s lead author, Daniel Millimet, PhD, professor of economics at Southern Methodist University. Students who participated in breakfast programs tended to be heavier at the outset, but because eating breakfast helps control hunger later in the day, school breakfasts could be particularly helpful with the obesity problem. “Once you control for the fact that kids who were participating in breakfast programs were heavier to begin with, the [breakfast] program is actually helping to bring their weight down,” he says.
Lunches, however, were 100% awful, in part because schools aren’t complying with federal guidelines. “There are a couple of times where the USDA has audited schools to see if they are complying with the guidelines, and the evidence points to the fact that they aren’t,” Millimet says. Dietitians with the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, which oversees the national school breakfast lunch programs, found that 10% to 35% of schools did not supply students with low-fat lunches. (Most breakfasts did comply.) Another part of the problem is “a la carte” items like sugary sodas and ice cream sandwiches, which are exempt from federal nutrition guidelines because kids pay out-of-pocket for them. These extra items are simply another source of revenue for cash-strapped schools.
“Schools operate under a lot of constraints, and they are trying to do the best they can with what they’re given,” adds Millimet. “I’m sure all schools would like to have fresh vegetables that are local and organic, but that’s not affordable.” And our broken Congress isn’t helping. The existing legislation that funded school breakfast and lunch programs expired at the end of September 2014. Despite First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to improve children’s health, the Senate would pass a new version of the bill that gives schools only a 6-cent-per-meal increase. The good news: the bill prohibits vending machines and unhealthy a la carte items, and makes nutritional guidelines more stringent. The bad news: tougher guidelines won’t solve the problem if schools couldn’t or wouldn’t even comply with the existing ones.
Publicly shaming schools seems to be having a viral effect. The youth nonprofit DoSomething.org asked teens to share photos of their school lunches throughout the month of September. Click here to view the full gallery if you want to lose your appetite. They plan to use the data gathered to create a “heat map” of school lunches in the U.S. and to raise awareness of the sad state of nutrition in public schools.
Ten-year-old Zachary Maxwell went one better: he secretly videotaped his school lunches for six months to prove to his parents that he wasn’t being served the nutritious meals his New York public school posted on its online menu. The 4th-grader, with some video-editing help from his dad, created the award winning short documentary “Yuck!” illustrating the dichotomy between the healthful, delicious sounding gourmet menus the parents see versus the reality of what the kids get.
Here are a few tips:
- Feed your kids breakfast. Eating breakfast, whether school provided or not, goes a long way in combating the childhood obesity problem. And it doesn’t take as much time as you think to prepare healthy breakfasts your kids will love.
- Pack their lunch. Your time is at a premium, but the best way to monitor what your kids eat for lunch is to pack it for them. Do it the night before if necessary. Invest in eco-friendly lunch containers, and focus on simple, delicious, healthful foods.
- Get involved. Bring your kids in on family meal planning and preparation. Take them food shopping and talk to them about nutritious food. Start a vegetable garden so they can experience where food really comes from and how delicious fresh vegetables are. Give kids healthy homemade snacks and get them involved in the preparation. And schedule nutritious family dinners, away from television and electronic distractions, so meals are enjoyable experiences for families to reconnect.