The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Whoever Said Fixing School Food Would Solve Obesity?

March 2nd, 2011 · 2 Comments · Posted in Blog

Kids make healthier choices at a salad bar

Jane Black’s piece in Slate this week uses a lot of words to state the obvious: Remaking school food alone won’t solve an epidemic of childhood obesity. Kids get their bad eating habits at home.

Slate would like readers–and presumably food policy writers such as Black–to suggest ways of solving the obesity problem. But Black’s contribution meanders and occasionally begs for a reality check. A few popular myths need busting:

#1: Michelle Obama is responsible for the recent re-authorization of the child nutrition act as well as new guidelines for the federally-subsidized school meals program.

In fact, numerous lobbyists were working on school food issues long before the Obamas arrived on the scene, pressing for things like removing junk food from schools. Under the recently passed re-authorization, the USDA for the first time will have authority to regulate all foods sold in schools, including those in a la carte lines, vending machines and in school stores. The new nutrition guidelines, calling for bigger portions of green, orange and red vegetables, fewer starchy vegetables such as potatoes, more whole grains, and a lot less salt, have been in the works for years at the Institute of Medicine.

#2: The federal government currently spends $8 billion on school meals.

The figure for school lunch alone was $10 billion in 2009. Throw in breakfast, and the annual cost is more like $13 billion.

#3: Many school children get as much as 50 percent of their calories at school.

This is nigh on impossible, since school is only in session 180 days of the year. According to the most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and maintained by the USDA, the following figures represent the calories consumed away from home [PDF] by children: 41 percent for males aged 6-11, 36 percent for males aged 12-19; 36 percent for girls aged 6-11, 42 percent for girls aged 12-19. In other words, most kids get most of their food from home, not school.

Myth#4: “Picking on the dour lunch lady is, politically, a lot more feasible than telling parents they’re doing a lousy job feeding their kids.”

Since when were lunch ladies pitted against parents in the political calculus over school food? Guidelines for school meals are a programmatic reality and have been a work in progress for more than 60 years. The government has no control over parents. But Michele Obama certainly has been sending her healthy eating message in that direction. The question is, are parents paying attention? Where the government should be flexing its regulatory muscle is over the $10 billion food corporations spend every year marketing their products to children.

Myth #5: Thirty-four percent of calories from fat is too much in school food.

In fact, federal guidelines have held the fat content of school meals artificially low at 30 percent, inviting schools to feed kids sugar instead. The USDA proposed guidelines would raise the fat limit to 35 percent, in line with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Sugar, the real problem for most kids, would remain unregulated.

Myth #6: A University of Michigan study indicates kids who eat lunch at school are fatter.

Not sure why Black brought this up, except maybe to knock it down in defense of low-income children, who are the biggest beneficiaries of the federal meals program and also hardest hit by malnutrition and weight issues. According to the USDA, kids who participate in the school lunch program consume more nutrients–but also more calories–than kids who don’t. The University of Michigan study only reported a correlation between overweight and eating school food. It did not purport to show cause and effect.

Myth #7: The obvious solution is for schools to serve more vegetables cooked from scratch.

This may be a solution (or maybe not), but it’s never been obvious. Even the Institute of Medicine expressed doubts that children will actually eat the heftier portions of vegetables and whole grains prescribed in the new meal guidelines. We know these are kids’ least favorite foods and routinely end up in the trash, uneaten. In fact, the proposed guidelines represent a nutritional experiment on a huge, national scale.

Myth #8: Producing such meals would cost $27 billion in better ingredients, skilled staff and fully-equipped school kitchens.

Where the heck did this figure come from? According to the USDA, the proposed guidelines will require quite a bit less processed food and more scratch cooking and will cost about 15 cents more per lunch in ingredients and increased labor, 51 cents more for breakfast. That adds up to $6.8 billion in the first five years after the guidelines go into effect, according to the USDA.

Improving school food and teaching kids better eating habits remains a worthy goal. But we should be realistic about how far it will take us. Schools alone cannot undo the junk food culture corporate interests have spent years putting in place. There’s heavy lifting to be done on a variety of fronts.

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  • Lisa Suriano

    Ed, thank you for always being a voice of reason and truth on this issue.

    I know I have said it before but I must say it again. Nutrition education for all people is the critical component to fixing our nation obesity problem. It is a subject that has been neglected for years upon years. Children and adults (parents, single folk, older adults, college students) need to know how to read food labels, properly nourish and cook for themselves and why this is so important. If this knowledge is mainstream, food companies will be forced to produce better products and won’t be able to sell as much junk. (supply and demand) This has already begun to happen, we need to keep pushing on all fronts.

  • Caroline Hallett

    Hi there – I work for the Food for LIfe Partnership in the UK – and we have been working for the past 8 years on the school food/obesity issue. All the arguments levelled in the US are the same ones we dealt with – and now that our work has been independently evaluated we are proving that a whole school approach to educating children about food, where it comes from, how its produced, and cooked is a more effective way of reducing obesity, but also increasing pupil attainment and achievement. Good luck to all those in the US who are seeking to fix a broken food culture – its a long road, and what is needed are complex solutions to what is a complex problem