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Are School Lunches Making Kids Fatter?

nutrition schoolVarious theories have been proposed to explain why the childhood obesity epidemic: kids spend too little time outside and too much time watching TV; kids eat too much fast food; families don’t eat dinner together any more and rely too much on processed foods. But today I heard the most surprising explanation: school lunches are partially to blame for our nation’s overweight kids.

New research funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA.) found that children who eat school lunches through the government’s National School Lunch Program are more likely to become overweight, according to economist Daniel L. Millimet at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

The research also found that children who eat both the government-sponsored breakfast and lunch are less heavy than children who don’t participate in either, and than children who eat only the school lunch (which suggests that school breakfasts are healthier than school lunches).

“The fact that federally funded school lunches contribute to the childhood obesity epidemic is disconcerting, although not altogether surprising,” said Millimet.

The study, “The School Nutrition Programs and the Incidence of Childhood Obesity,” was published in the Summer issue of “The Journal of Human Resources.”

The USDA requires that federally-sponsored school meals meet certain nutritional standards, but schools can choose the specific foods they serve. Schools are also allowed to serve individual food items a la carte, which are not covered by the federal guidelines.

The researchers analyzed data on more than 13,500 elementary school students who were interviewed in kindergarten, first and third grades, and then again in later grades.

In May, First Lady Michelle Obama announced the results and recommendations of The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity report, which found that more than 30 percent of American children ages 2 to 19 are overweight or obese. The report recommends that schools serve healthier foods.

It’s possible that kids are tacking on a la carte items rather than purchasing the USDA-approved school lunch. The National School Lunch Program supplies meals to about 30 million children in 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools.

The obvious challenge is finding ways to serve affordable, but healthy foods. Some parents have given up on the school lunch program altogether and send their kids with bag lunches (which may or may not be any healthier). Research has shown that parents have lost faith in school lunches.

But there are movements underway to reform and revitalize the school lunch program. Our local public school in Brooklyn participates in the “Garden to School Cafe” program, which lets school cafeteria staffers put kid-gardened produce on the menu. It’s an innovative way to get kids involved in making healthy food choices and to get produce for less money.

Cook for America recently inaugurated another program intended to train “lunch ladies” to prepare healthier lunches.

What ideas do you have for making school lunches healthier?

Photo: flickr/SpecialKRB

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