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Class is in Session: “Lessons From the Lunchroom”


Kids who participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) are eating more fruits and vegetables, but the program alone is not yet strong enough to prevent childhood obesity. A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) finds that strengthening school meal programs can have “lasting health and economic benefits.”

By analyzing results from a U.S. Department of Education national survey, UCS researchers found that children participating in free or reduced price (FRP) lunch programs, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, have healthier diets when participating in the NSLP. This may be due in part to the fact that these children lack access to healthy options outside of school.

Specifically, the report showed that fifth graders who qualified for free or reduced lunch prices ate 3 servings more fruits and vegetables than kids who didn’t qualify. By the time these kids reached eighth grade, they ate 1.5 more servings. Unfortunately, this same group of children was also more likely to consume unhealthy foods like sugary drinks and fast food, whose empty calories and fat add up quickly. This is one reason why children who participate in free or reduced price meal programs are more likely to be overweight or obese.

“Many American children are trapped in a cycle that must be stopped,” UCS authors note. “Children in lower-income households have greater barriers to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which results in poorer health outcomes and lower academic performance.

In addition to the health problems stemming from childhood obesity, such as Type 2 diabetes, the epidemic also carries a hefty price tag. An estimated $210 billion (about 16.5 percent of total healthcare costs in the United States) is spent annually on obesity-related medical issues.

“U.S. taxpayers are paying twice for obesity. Once for a food system that is making our kids sick, and again when they become adults with diet-related illness,” said Jeffrey O’Hara, agricultural economist and co-author of the report.

The researchers suggest that investing in healthier schools today will lead to billions in cost savings tomorrow. They also offer several policy suggestions for the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 including: protecting school nutrition standards; funding and incentives for schools to offer more fruits and vegetables; improving nutrition education in schools, and more.

Individual schools can also play a large part in encouraging healthy eating. Early reports from the first schools to implement the updated nutrition standards show that offering more fruits and vegetables in cafeterias leads to higher consumption. And, giving kids more options to choose from will make them more likely to try a new fruit or vegetable. There are also already proven strategies for encouraging students to pick up a banana instead of an ice cream bar, like creating fun names for the fruits and vegetables, displaying them in a visually appealing way, making them more visible, and making it more difficult to access unhealthy choices.

The authors note that creating healthy habits early on is key to preventing obesity and associated health care costs. “Schools are a critical place to introduce and reinforce healthy behaviors that serve as a strong foundation for childhood development and increase children’s chances of living healthier lives,” said Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, lead author of the report.

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