Reducing Childhood Obesity Through Improved School Nutrition
August 13, 2014
School nutrition policy reform has recently gained political and media attention as a means to help curb the obesity epidemic in America. According to the Let’s Move! Initiative, childhood obesity rates have tripled over the past three decades and there are nearly one in three children in America who are overweight or obese. Obesity rates are even higher in African American and Hispanic communities, where almost 40% of children are overweight or obese (Let’s Move Initiative, 2013).
There has been an increasing interest in the research community identifying characteristics of food access that might encourage unhealthy dietary and physical activity patterns. Because many children consume at least half of their meals at school, and for many children, food served at school may be the only food they regularly eat, researchers have focused on school-based studies to better understand childhood obesity trends.
Researchers have found that low-income populations and food insecurity are associated with lower food expenditures, low fruit and vegetable consumption, and lower-quality diets (Nestle, 2000). Due to lack of healthy food access, parents in low-income communities often have their children purchase lunch while in school. Past studies have shown that school-aged children who purchased lunch in school were more likely to be obese compared to their peers who brought lunch from home. Furthermore, children who purchased lunches were more likely to eat fatty meats, drink sugary beverages, and consume fewer vegetables or fruits (Tao, 2005).
To expand children’s access to healthy school meals, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in December 2010. The goal of the legislation was to help children get the nutrition they needed to learn, grow and succeed in school and in life. Highlights of the act included: providing additional funding to schools that meet updated nutritional standards for school meals, increasing the number of eligible children enrolled in school meal programs by certifying children using data from other federal assistance programs, and giving the USDA the authority to set nutritional standards for all foods regularly sold in schools during the day including vending machines (White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, 2011).
This policy was put into place because taxpayers were spending billions of dollars each year to combat child hunger and improve the health and wellness of needy children and families. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act dramatically expanded the number and scope of federal meal programs. The Act was intended to improve the nutrition quality of school meals and improve the entire nutrition environment in schools. Implementation took form in allowing parents, students, school food personnel, school board members, administrators, and community members to participate in the development and periodic review and update of the wellness policy. Next, updated nutrition guidelines were put into place to meet the new USDA nutrition standards depicted in the federal government’s new food icon, MyPlate. These new standards were to be applied to all the foods available anywhere at school during the school day, which included food sold outside school meal programs. Additionally, school districts were now required to measure and report on the implementation and progress of the policy including school compliance, comparisons to model policies and progress toward achieving policy goals.
The First Lady Michelle Obama and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsak released the federal government’s food icon, MyPlate, to serve as a reminder to help consumers make healthier food choices and provide an updated standard of nutrition.
The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and made it through the House of Representatives. Since the revision of the school nutrition standards, public schools across the country have replaced high-fat, high-sodium and high calorie foods, plus sugar sweetened beverages, with a more nutritionally balanced diet of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low- or nonfat milk, and lean proteins. After the bill was passed, the USDA eased some of the regulations in an effort to accommodate schools by altering standards of servings of grains and proteins in 2012 and recently announcing a two-year extension on whole grain requirements.
In further efforts to improve nutrition standards in schools, the USDA recently implemented the “Smart Snacks in Schools” standards. As of July 1, an individual slice of pizza, for example, can’t be purchased on the day of or after it’s offered as part of a full meal. Additionally, foods sold in vending machines on school property must now meet new standards on fat, sugar, and salt. These regulations have been met with criticism surrounding the struggle to manage the increased cost of preparing meals under the new standards and an increase in food waste in schools. To combat these claims, the USDA has expressed a goal of increasing nutrition literacy to give children the educational tools to understand and appreciate the changes that have been made to their lunch.
While there still remains political debate over government regulation of school meals, the updated standards and policy changes make for an important step in improving the health of America’s youth. Policies addressing increasing healthy food access combined with increasing nutrition education efforts and physical activity opportunities continue to help combat the epidemic of childhood obesity.
White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity. (2011). White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity: One Year Progress Report. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office.
Nestle, M. (2002). Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.
Nestle, M. & Jacobson, M. (2000). Halting the Obesity Epidemic: A Public Health Policy Approach. Public Health Report. 115. pp 12-24.
Tao, H., & Glazer, G. (2005). Legislative: Obesity: From a Health Issue to a Political and Policy Issue. The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing. 10(2).
Wang, Y., Beydoun, M., (2007). The Obesity Epidemic in the United States - Gender, Age, Socioeconomic, Racial/Ethnic, and Geographic Characteristics: A Systematic Review and Meta-Regression Analysis. Epidemiologic Reviews. 29, pp.6-28
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