Childhood Obesity and the National School Lunch Program

Childhood Obesity and the National School Lunch Program

A Call to Action

It has become common knowledge that the United States is suffering from an obesity epidemic. In the year 2006, 34% of adults in the United States were obese, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Obesity is problematic for several reasons yet the most pressing are the health complications associated with it. The obese are at increased risk for diseases such as coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, stroke, osteoarthritis, and sleep apnea (CDC). Furthermore, according to the NHANES surveys conducted by the CDC, obesity no longer remains a problem merely for adults. Children, meaning those aged 19 and younger, have also seen a sharp incline in obesity rates. Approximately 17% of children aged 6 to 11 were reported as obese in the years 2003-2006; an increase from the 5.5% observed in the years 1976-1980. It should be noted that these numbers include only those deemed clinically obese with a Body Mass Index (BMI) greater than 30. This statistic does not include the thousands of overweight children who fall short of this marker yet still suffer from the same complaints. The CDC also has found that 80% of children whom are overweight by age 10 will become obese by the age of 25. Obese children are beginning to suffer from the same diseases once thought to be reserved for adults, like type 2 diabetes. These startling trends have spurred many heated debates over what the cause of obesity is. The generally accepted opinion today is that people are consuming too many low nutrient foods in combination with sedentary lifestyles. These low nutrient foods are typically found in fast food and packaged foods. This is troubling because most schools today provide students with food products analogous to fast food, products that have been frozen and shipped across vast distances. Many school children rely upon the breakfast and lunch programs provided by their schools. With the ever increasing obesity rates in schoolchildren some action must be taken. By providing children with access to healthier foods in school and the education to make smarter decisions for a healthy life, perhaps the obesity rates could be stopped. Therefore, it is necessary to reexamine the NSLP and rework it so that it promotes healthful foods and behaviors so that all children will have a fair chance at a healthy life.

The first official nationwide policy regarding school lunch programs was the National School Lunch Act in 1962. This act emphasized the logistics of implementing a school lunch program rather than ensuring nutritional foods and only made the brief stipulation that the food should meet the minimal nutritional requirements. It also encouraged food providers to use the most abundant commodities, which may or may not have been the most nutritionally sound. The Child Nutrition Act addressed the issue of nutrition more in depth in 1966. Congress stated that this act came from the, "recognition of the demonstrated relationship between food and good nutrition and the capacity of children to develop and learn.” They added that “it is hereby declared to be…that these efforts shall be extended, expanded, and strengthened… as a measure to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation's children” (NSLP Website) A few years later, in 1969, the President recognized the emerging health crisis of malnutrition in the American public. He argued that many Americans suffered from malnutrition for one reason or another and urged congress to take action against this. Thus, congress developed approaches in the NSLP in such a way they thought would solve the malnourishment problem. Some of these approaches are that “the nutritive content of the meal must meet at least a third of the child’s nutritional requirements for the day,” the price of the meal must be affordable, it must introduce children to a wide variety of food, and that the lunchroom should be used as a classroom to learn the fundamentals of nutrition. So the government has not been oblivious to the problems with health in today’s children. However, in these early stages of the NSLP, it should be noted that their main goal was to prevent malnutrition, not overweight and obesity. The fundamentals on which the entire NSLP are based on are to deliver sufficient calories, not necessarily to provide the healthiest foods. Ironically though, many children are still malnourished, lacking essential nutrients. Many are now simply overfed.

The problems with the NSLP can be seen simply by examining a typical school lunch menu from a participant school. With today’s food technologies though, even a meal that may initially sound reasonably healthy may in fact be filled with artificial flavors and synthetic fillers. For example, on April 10, 2009, the lunch options for elementary school children in Spokane Public School District #81 consisted of an entrée of chicken nuggets or a pancake sausage on a stick, with sides of a potato triangle, orange juice, and a “spring sugar cookie.” The districts website reveals the major ingredients in all of these items. The most common in this meal are corn syrup, soy protein isolate, and red dye #40. Middle school and high school student’s meals tend not to fare much better either. The typical menu listed on the district’s website includes but is not limited to cheeseburgers, assorted pizzas, burritos, and nachos. This does not include the a la carte bars that exist in many schools that offer the typical snack commodities like chips and cookies. Studies have shown that these meals are not meeting the guidelines set by the USDA. The School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Studies have been performed three times, the most recent in 2004-2005. The results of this study were that the foods typically provided by the NSLP contain excessive amounts of sodium and fat. In 2007, more than 30 million children participated in the NSLP and approximately 35% of these children’s daily food intake occurs during school hours. This means that these children’s diets are exceeding daily total allowances in sodium and fat in one meal alone.

There are several arguments that can be made against the postulation about a correlation between childhood obesity and the NSLP. Admittedly, most studies linking obesity and the NSLP have not provided very definitive evidence. Many make the argument that the most important factor in childhood obesity is the environment set up by the parent at home. After all, if children are only consuming 35% of their food intake while at school, then it would follow that the majority of their foods consumed are at home. It could be that their diets at home consist of junk foods and even more empty calories than the school lunches provide. And while this all may be true, it is important to realize that just because the home environment cannot be controlled, it does not mean that the nutrition of these children should be given up on entirely. Even if these children receive only one healthy meal at school a day, that is still better than receiving none. Also, the argument is made that using healthier foods for school lunches is not an economically viable option. And yes, using fresh foods may seem more expensive and labor intensive than the prepackaged, frozen foods that fill most school kitchens but upon closer examination this assumption proves false. “The cost of fresh food varies according to location and season, but savings could be as much as 50 percent. With fresh food, you’re not paying the processor’s labor costs, and you’re saving on shipping and packaging, which is where most of the food cost is,” said Marc Zammit, the director of culinary support and development at Bon Appétit Management Company. He continues that he has “seen statistics that show that packaging alone can represent 50 percent of the food cost.” So while there may be an upfront increase in costs in the transition period, once a program is in place it may cost even less than the current NSLP.

Some schools throughout the country have already rejected the NSLP and have created their own lunch programs in hopes of improving the health of their students. The Berkeley Unified School District in California was among the first to make an effort to reform their lunch program. Their menus include seasonal, local foods and fresh ingredients. They also have programs that teach children the value of healthy foods and exercise, as well as cooking lessons. A typical springtime menu for a school implementing such a program may consist of turkey sandwiches, broccoli raisin salad, and fresh strawberries. It is heavily emphasized in these programs that these foods are fresh, wholesome and natural. Famed chef Alice Waters has also created her own program in Berkeley called the “Edible Schoolyard,” based on these principles. In light of schools trying to adopt these sort of programs, the Center for Ecoliteracy has provided an extensive guide entitled “Rethinking School Lunch.” On their website they lay out the specific steps schools or school districts need to take in order to effectively and efficiently make the transition to a healthier meal plan. Janet Brown, the program officer for food systems for the Center for Ecoliteracy, states that “The lunch period is a window for critical learning and modeling of attitudes toward food.” The whole premise of this plan and others like it is that by not only by providing fresh, healthy, and wholesome foods will the overall diet of a child improve, but by providing an integrated education system they will help set up that child to make healthy decisions for a lifetime. This is key in preventing or reversing childhood overweight and obesity. If these children can be reached at a young age the probability that the lessons will stick with them is much greater. Children do not necessarily have habits ingrained into them as strongly as adults do so it would in theory be easier to affect their behaviors.

The program presented by the Center for Ecoliteracy is not the only one of it’s kind. The Farm to School Program also focuses on bringing fresh, local foods into the cafeterias of schools. The Farm to School Program was started in 1996 in California and Florida. It has since expanded into over 2000 programs in 39 states. Several case studies provided by the Farm to School program lay out the challenges and benefits of implementing such a program. The main complaint was that the food was initially difficult to acquire in some regions. For example, the Mattole School District in California is extremely rural and therefore has had difficulties with food transportation. However, they have solved this problem by using their school bus to pick up deliveries since they still feel that this program is worth the extra effort. There will always be benefits and drawbacks to any school lunch approach but the health benefits of adopting a school to farm program or a similar one, may outweigh the potential for initial hassle. Using the outlines provided by the Center for Ecoliteracy and the Farm to School Program, any school district could improve the quality of the meals they provide to their students. Ideally though, these programs would be applied at a national level. This kind of large scale operation would have the greatest effect on not only childhood obesity overall health in children as well. The small, individual operations are beneficial for the students who live in those districts, however not everyone has that opportunity yet. Therefore, to address the mounting concerns with childhood obesity and health, the United States government should redevelop their NSLP and utilize these outlines as their guide to creating a healthier environment for children.

Never before in United States history has the nation faced such a preventable epidemic whose associated diseases have made it one of the largest killers in this country. Childhood and adult obesity have become commonplace in American society. In order to reverse these trends, some changes must be made immediately. The best bet in preventing further increases in obesity is to try and reach out to children before they become overweight or obese. Children spend the majority of their time in school so it is an ideal medium through which to communicate how they should take care of themselves in order to live the healthiest life they can. Studies show that children who eat nutritiously and lead healthy lives perform better in not only school but all aspects of life. However, much of the foods provided by schools through the NSLP can hardly be classified as healthy fare. Furthermore, gym class and recess are increasingly being reduced within schools so children are not learning the health benefits that result from exercise. Therefore, the NSLP should be revised to incorporate fresh and healthy meals as well as to provide education on what constitutes a healthy lifestyle. Only through preventative measures by reaching out to future generations can the health crisis of obesity have any hope of being averted.

Works Cited

Briefel, Ronette R., Ander Wilson, and Philip M. Gleason. "Consumption of Low-Nutrient, Energy-Dense Foods and Beverages at School, Home, and Other Locations among School Lunch Participants and Nonparticipants." Journal of the American Dietetic Association 109 (2009): S79. ProQuest. Foley Center, Spokane. 4 Apr. 2009 .
Briefel et al describe the influence of environment on children’s consumption of empty calories. They examine the consumption of junk foods by children that participate in the National School Lunch Program as well as the children who do not. They conclude that to improve the health of the students, access to junky foods should be minimized. I can use this article to help support my argument that feeding children low-nutrient foods in schools does have a significant impact on their overall health.

Clark, Melissa A., and Mary K. Fox. "Nutritional Quality of the Diets of US Public School Children and the Role of the School Meal Programs." Journal of the American Dietetic Association 109 (2009): S44. ProQuest. Foley Center, Spokane. 4 Apr. 2009 .

Clark and Fox examine the health of the diets of US schoolchildren and see if there is a relationship between the nutritional quality of a child’s diet and whether or not they participate in the National School Lunch Program. Overall they find that the school lunch programs do have a significant impact on the children’s diets who participate in them. They also found the nutritional quality of these diets to be lacking. I can use this article for further support that the quality of food provided by the National School Lunch Program is poor. Clark and Fox specifically found the sodium and saturated fat contents of the food to be particularly concerning.

"National School Lunch Program." Home Page. 04 Apr. 2009 .
This is the home page for the actual National School Lunch Program set up by the USDA. They give the history of the program and what its overall goals are. Also, most importantly they provide a fact sheet that answers frequently asked questions. I can use this site to show what the government’s opinion is of their program and also to establish exactly what the program is by definition.

Nestle, Marion. Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. New York: University of California P, 2003.

Nestle examines the role of the food industry in the general health of the public. He argues that the interests of food corporations have overwhelmed attempts to rectify the poor American diet. He discusses how the food industry has negatively affected the health of the nation. I can use this book to show how the government does not always seem to have the consumer’s best interest at heart. This book is all about the corporate motivations that could potentially damage our health even further. I can also use this to show how the food industry can manipulate policies and how that ultimately affects health.

Waters, Alice, and Katrina Heron. "No lunch left behind." Seattle Post-Intelligencer 22 Feb. 2009: B7-B7. ProQuest. Foley Center, Spokane. 4 Apr. 2009 .
Waters and Heron argue that the current National School Lunch Program has failed and therefore needs to be revised. They purport that the food distributed by the program is often not any more nutritionally sound than fast food. They say it is essential to the health of future generations that children not only be provided with wholesome, nutritional foods but also lessons in cooking and health. Waters is a legend in the fight for better food in schools so it will be useful for me to be able to quote her. This article supports my argument that it is indeed necessary to revitalize the current subpar program.