Government-Funded School Meals May Increase Obesity Risk

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

A Virginia Tech researcher has found that government-funded meals in schools are causing financially struggling youth to be at greater risk of becoming overweight.

The free-lunch programs may actually be one of the causes of the nationwide obesity epidemic. Wen You, an associate professor of agricultural and applied economics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said:

"While well-intentioned, these government funded school meal programs that are aimed at making kids healthy are in fact making participating students more at risk of being overweight. This study identifies the hardest battles in crafting policy to alleviate children in low-income populations being overweight."

The study was published in the journal Health Economics.

Professor You discovered that kids who were more apt to be overweight were from families that qualified for and engaged in the school breakfast and lunch programs, with no breaks from the program throughout their elementary and intermediate academic years. These are the kids who eat one-third or one-half of their daily diets at their schools.

"We found that the longer children were in the programs, the higher their risk of being overweight. We also saw the most negative effect of the government-funded school meal programs in the South, the Northeast, and rural areas of the country. 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."

Additionally, the study found that kids in the South experienced the most notable impact on their weight in the fifth grade, and in the Northeast, the largest impact came in the eighth grade.

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 raised the nutrition-quality models of school meals, and the Community Eligibility Provision, that took effect in the 2014-2015 academic year, allows schools in poverty-level communities to provide free meals for all pupils. You was troubled by the fact that the new legislation was launched before the previous standards were being met suitably. Now, You says, there are potentially millions of students who could be harmed by accepting the free breakfasts and lunches.

First Lady Michelle Obama championed the program, which was put in place to ensure that kids had access to and were eating nutritious foods.

You and her colleagues used information from a survey of 21,260 young people who were tracked from kindergarten to eighth grade to evaluate the school meals programs' effect on pupils' weight. The scientists controlled for the self-selection and income consequences. Researchers found that young people who were not a part of the school meals initiatives were less inclined to be obese or overweight than kids getting free meals, says Andrew Follett for The Daily Caller.

Mrs. Obama also launched a program called "Let's Move!" in 2010 to reduce childhood obesity to 5% by 2030. Since 2008, the obesity rate has changed only slightly. Some of the data examined by the research team were published before the school lunch program came into being and before the anti-obesity legislation was passed.

Mia De Graaf, reporting for the Daily Mail, writes that the study has pointed out that school meals programs need to improve their effectiveness at encouraging better nutrition for children in school.

Apparently, although the research is limited to examining school lunch and breakfast programs, in general, it does reveal the necessity of going beyond solely raising nutrition standards for US pupils.

The authors explain what many districts across the nation have known for some time. Policymakers must design programs that allow schools to provide healthy food that meets nutritional standards and is food that students will find appetizing.

You added that extra policy support is needed so that funding is available for chef-to-school and farm-to-school plans. She writes that cafeteria staff need culinary training so students can enjoy what they are being served.

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