Lessons from the Lunchroom: What Do We Know About School Lunch and Kids’ Diet?

, food systems & health analyst | February 27, 2015, 11:56 am EDT
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This week was the release of my first co-authored report at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Lessons from the Lunchroom: Childhood Obesity, School Lunch, and the Way to a Healthier Future details the extent of America’s childhood obesity crisis and how school meals play a role in influencing diet.

Currently, 30% of children are overweight or obese, and while obesity rates have plateaued for some races and ethnicities, they continue to rise for others. Children with obesity are as much as 10 times more likely to become obese adults. This is especially worrisome since obesity is linked to dangerous, costly diseases including type II diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. Research shows that the U.S. spends over $200 billion annually for obesity-related illnesses, and taxpayers foot some of the bill through public insurance programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

children and school nutrition professionals in a cafeteria

But the costs of obesity are also borne by real people and families who suffer from the condition and related illnesses. Our analysis of national health data reveals that overweight and obese young adults (ages 18-25) with unhealthy diets already have medical costs one-third higher than those with healthy diets. The situation only worsens with time, as adults across all ages with unhealthy diets have medical costs 90% higher than those with healthy diets. If we do nothing, obesity-related medical costs are estimated to exceed $515 billion by 2030.

Overweight and obesity are linked with poor eating habits, and eating habits start when children are young. UCS looked at the impact of school lunch on children’s diets and health. The National School Lunch Program, which was created in the 1940s in response to the malnourishment of U.S. children, is supported by taxpayer dollars. It also includes funding for free- and reduced-price (FRP) lunches for low-income children. In 2010, a bipartisan Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act—which brought nutrition standards for schools into accord with federal dietary guidelines. This meant more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains on kids’ plates. Congress is set to reauthorize this legislation during 2015, and our report recommends specific steps they should take to set kids on a healthier path.

To help inform Congress about the impact of school lunch, we used national data following the same group of kids from 5th until 8th grade. We looked at students who participated in the FRP lunch program and found that participating kids ate more fruits and vegetables than kids not in the program. Fifth grade FRP-meal participants ate 3 more servings of fruits and vegetables per week than non-participants. As FRP-meal participants aged, they continued to eat more fruits and vegetables than non-participants. However, FRP-meal participants also ate fast food and drank sugary drinks more often—and were more likely to be obese—than kids not in the program.

Based on our research on the free and reduced-price school lunch program, the bottom line is that the school lunch program is doing a good job—but it needs to do much more to overcome other unhealthy influences in kids’ lives. Therefore, we recommend that Congress:

  • Protect the gains made in 2010. Now is not the time to back down on nutrition standards—with the obesity crisis, we need more time to evaluate the gains made in 2010.
  • Prioritize fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are critically under-consumed by children. More can and should be done to reverse this trend.
  • Increase the federal reimbursement rate for healthy school meals. Less-healthy processed foods are often cheaper than whole-food ingredients. Schools need more flexibility to buy the healthiest foods possible.
  • Finance school cafeteria kitchen equipment. Outdated kitchen equipment creates barriers for cafeteria staff trying to prepare healthy meals. Schools need funding to help modernize their kitchens.
  • Improving nutrition education. Schools can complement efforts to provide children with healthier food by giving them the information they need to make healthier choices.
  • Increase funding for the Farm to School Grant Program. This program supports educational initiatives related to food production and nutrition. Given the overwhelming popularity and demonstrated success, schools should have increased funding for farm-to-school activities.
  • Not allow politics to trump science. Nutrition experts are the best sources for setting nutritional standards in schools. Use these experts for guidance on these standards.

What You Can Do: School lunch is an effective tool for increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables, but school lunch alone is not strong enough to counteract unhealthy influences in kid’s lives and prevent obesity. I hope the report’s recommendations will serve as a foundation for renewed legislation that better sets kids up for a healthier future. And you can help. Send a letter to your members of Congress today!

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  • Nancy Schimmel

    Children need more than information about nutrition. They need experience. They need to grow food in school gardens and cook it in school kitchens.

    • Lindsey Haynes-Maslow

      Thank you for the comment Nancy. You are right – children need education, experience and an environment that promotes healthy eating!