Tag Archives: schools role in combatting obesity

Limiting Competitive Foods in Schools is Key to Combating Obesity

Snap peas and lettuce are flourishing in the new White House garden, a project Michelle Obama hopes will call attention to American eating habits. The first family often leads both political and social trends, and child nutrition experts hope Michelle Obama’s influence translates into higher quality school food that helps prevent obesity. Upcoming legislation addresses a growing problem schools are facing: unhealthy foods and drinks impede student health, but they often contribute to school coffers.

School lunches heavily influence nutrition among children and youth. For this reason, The Future of Children addressed school meal programs in the Childhood Obesity issue. The National School Lunch program served 30.5 million school children a day in 2008. In schools participating in the program, sixty percent of children eat school lunches. The federal government heavily subsidizes these lunches and sets minimum nutrition standards that guarantee an adequate provision of protein, Vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron. Still, in many districts these lunches supply too many calories from fat and too few fresh fruits and vegetables. Even more problematic, some districts contract with private companies to sell competitive foods such as fast food in cafeterias and snack vending machines. “Pouring rights” – contracts with companies to sell soda in schools – are also popular. As a result, kids consume a huge amount of unhealthy food and drink items during the school day, and schools have no incentive to change because they benefit financially from the competitive food contracts.
Three significant challenges loom for nutrition advocates. First, school lunches should provide higher-quality food, including fresher produce. Second, the influence of competitive foods must be decreased. Finally, schools need money to afford more expensive food items and supplant income lost from the sale of competitive foods.
One way to bring more healthful food options into cafeterias is to raise standards on school lunches. The federal government’s proposal of one billion more dollars for the National School Lunch Program can reimburse schools for the costs of this improvement. Such national actions would ensure that all children can eat well at school, not just children in more health-conscious or wealthy districts that have already improved their lunch quality.
Moreover, schools should decrease their reliance on competitive foods contracts. The Child Nutrition Act, soon to be revised and reauthorized (House and Senate bills are currently in committee), can impose regulations that limit what outside foods or vending machines may be on school grounds. Ninety-eight percent of high schools have vending machines and such rules could decrease their ubiquity. On their own, schools can look to models in Maine, California, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania that replaced soft drinks with more healthful options, without losing revenue.
U.S. schoolchildren eat nineteen to fifty percent of their daily food while at school, and current regulations allow too much of this food to be unhealthy and fattening. Through increased standards and fewer competitive food contracts, we can make nutritious school lunches a reality for our children.

Obesity Report Cards — A good idea or waste of money?

As recently reported in The Boston Globe, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has proposed a far reaching anti-obesity campaign in an effort to reverse the trend of growing waistlines. The initiative includes a proposal to provide “BMI Report Cards” to Massachusetts school children. Under this plan, public schools would be required to measure the height and weight of 1st, 4th, 7th, and 10th grade students and calculate their Body Mass Index (BMI) with this data to determine if a student is overweight. That information would be sent home with the student, along with detailed advice on proper nutrition and exercise.

According to a Future of Children article on the role of schools in obesity prevention, BMI Report Cards have shown some promise in school districts where they have been implemented, but they are not without controversy. In particular, if they are delivered in a vacuum without other environmental changes, they can be a wasted effort. Specifically, they must be part of a comprehensive approach that includes providing healthy food choices and eliminating junk food offerings in the schools, making health education part of the curriculum, providing quality physical education on a regular basis, and making time for recess.
These changes are not easy, as noted in our policy brief, “Fighting Obesity in the Public Schools.” But they must be part of the overall effort. Providing BMI Report cards while continuing to offer junk food in school or cutting recess and P.E. is not only counterintuitive, but potentially a waste of education dollars. In this time of drastic school budget cuts, we cannot afford to throw money at an effort that is unlikely to yield comprehensive benefits. Without a doubt, we need to address the issue of childhood obesity. But we need to do so holistically, realizing that providing information without a supportive environment in which to make needed changes is a waste of time and money.
For information on childhood obesity trends, see "Childhood Obesity: Trends and Potential Causes," Patricia Anderson and Kristen Butcher
For a comprehensive overview, see The Future of Children: Childhood Obesity