School Lunch: What’s the Cost of Noncompliance?

, food systems & health analyst | June 24, 2015, 2:47 pm EDT
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Today, the House of Representatives Education and the Workforce Committee held a hearing on the costs of improved nutrition standards for school meals introduced under the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA). This bipartisan Act put more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and less salt and fat, on student’s lunch trays. Some say the law’s price tag has been too high, but the way I read the research, the price tag for not providing healthier lunches is much higher.

Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals – all of which are essential nutrients for maintaining a healthy weight and supporting children’s growth and development. Too much fat, sugar, and sodium and not enough fiber, vitamins, and minerals increases children’s risk for many diet-related health conditions (see chart below). Children’s eating habits are formed early on and can influence taste preferences later in life. Therefore, it is essential that healthier foods are introduced and reinforced in school.

school lunch compliance

To date, research shows that the updated school food standards are doing exactly what they were intended to: help kids eat healthier. Over the past year, studies conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity have found that students are selecting and eating more fruits and vegetables – and throwing away less food – because of the new standards. The requirement that children be served a half-cup of fruits and vegetables with every school meal has been a frequent target for HHFKA critics. During today’s hearing, Representative Martha Fudge (D-OH) reminded her colleagues that “there is a federal role in ensuring that every child has access to healthy food.”

At the samto comply or not to complye hearing, Representative Dave Brat (R-VA) said the cost of providing school lunch has risen from $10.6 billion in 2010 to $12.6 billion in 2014. While the cost of compliance may be a challenge for some, and an increase in federal reimbursement rates and other support would help, the costs of noncompliance are much greater.

A recent study by researchers at Duke University estimates that childhood obesity will cost society an additional $19,000 per child in lifetime healthcare costs compared to a healthy weight child. Duke’s conservative estimate reveals that obese adolescents will cost us $14 billion in lifetime healthcare costs. Balking at the cost of compliance is short-term thinking that ignores the long-term human and economic costs of raising another generation of children on unhealthy diets.

Unfortunately, the costs of poor diets disproportionately affect children from lower-income backgrounds. These children have greater challenges maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which results in poorer health outcomes and academic achievement. As these children age into adulthood, lower educational attainment leads to lower paying jobs, and lower paying jobs make it yet again difficult to maintain healthy lifestyles. Healthier school lunches serve as a lifeline for these children struggling for upward social mobility in our country.

As Ms. Donna Martin, Director of the School Nutrition Program in Burke County, Georgia, said during her testimony at the hearing, “We demand the best of our schools and for our students in every other part of the campus – and our cafeteria should be no different.”

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