School lunch programs have gained increased attention — and scrutiny — in recent years.
For example, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution has been leading the fight for healthier, and tastier, school lunches for kids.
Yet, for school administrators focused on the bottom line or parents the question remains: is there a link between obesity rates in children and school lunch programs?
School lunch programs and State Laws
Why the cause for alarm?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about a fifth (20%) of American children are obese.
Because of this many public health experts have urged local and state governments to remove competitive foods (i.e. snacks that “compete” with the regular school lunches) from schools. In recent years some states have started to pass laws that restrict their sale, either banning them outright or setting limits on the amount of sugar, fat or calories they contain.
So have these laws been effective?
A recent study discovered that adolescents in states with strict laws regulating the sale of snacks and sugary drinks in public schools gained less weight over a three-year period than those living in states with no such laws.
In other words, there was a strong correlation between healthier weight and tough state laws regulating snacks from vending machines and other venues not part of the regular school meal.
The study did not claim that stronger laws were directly responsible for the better outcomes.
And really, how could they make the claim.
However, it’s an issue of limiting the “choices” available to children while they are at school. In other words, given unlimited access to junk food versus “healthy school lunches” it’s perfectly understandable that many children would opt for “junk food.” So removing access to sugary drinks and vending machine options would, quite naturally, steer kids toward tradition school lunches.
Additionally, the correlation discovered by researchers suggests that the laws might be a factor.
They found that students who lived in states with strong laws throughout the entire three-year period gained an average of 0.44 fewer body mass index units, or roughly 2.25 fewer pounds for a 5-foot-tall child, than adolescents in states with no policies.
They also found that obese fifth graders who lived in states with stronger laws were more likely to reach a healthy weight by the eighth grade than those living in states with no laws. Students exposed to weaker laws, however, had weight gains that were not different from those of students in states with no laws at all.
The authors argued that the study offered evidence that local policies could be effective tools:
“Competitive-food laws can have an effect on obesity rates if the laws are specific, required and consistent,” said Daniel Taber, a fellow at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Still, many states have no laws at all regulating the sale of such foods.
Perhaps it’s time for some national standards when it comes to outlining school lunch programs, along with restricting access to “junk foods” in our children’s schools.
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