WASHINGTON (February 25, 2015) – Child nutrition is the topic of conversation this week in D.C., as the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) kicks off its annual summit. Featuring a plenary address from First Lady Michelle Obama, the summit will bring together industry leaders with nonprofit, academic and government counterparts to address ending the epidemic of childhood obesity. In anticipation of these conversations, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report and an infographic today examining the potential for school lunch programs to improve children’s diets and their futures.
The report found that participation in the federally subsidized National School Lunch Program encourages children to eat more fruits and vegetables – foods that keep children healthy. At the same time, healthy school meals alone are not enough to counteract other unhealthy dietary influences linked with obesity.
The report, “Lessons from the Lunchroom: Childhood Obesity, School Lunch, and the Way to a Healthier Future,” analyzed of the eating behaviors of thousands of children over time. Children from low-income families are eligible for free- and reduced-price (FRP) meals. UCS found that fifth-grade participants in (FRP) meal programs ate three additional servings of fruits and vegetables each week compared to non-participants. By eighth grade, the same children still consumed more fruits and vegetables each week than non-participants.
“School lunch is a great way to expose kids to fruits and veggies and steer them away from processed foods. While school lunch is getting kids to eat more fresh produce, many are still eating too much junk food – and it’s contributing to unprecedented levels of obesity,” said Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, the food systems and health analyst for UCS’s Food & Environment Program and author of the report. “Even more troubling is that kids from minority and low-income communities are hit the hardest.”
Compared with white children, African American children are 43 percent more likely to be obese, and Hispanic children are 59 percent more likely to be obese. Among the children the report looked at, low-income kids enrolled in the school lunch program ate more fruits and vegetables, but they also, on average, consumed sugary drinks and fast food more often than non-participating children, and they were more likely to be overweight or obese. These findings highlight the need for a stronger school lunch program to overcome other unhealthy influences.
Thirty percent of U.S. children today are overweight or obese, and unhealthy eating habits are part of the problem. Since obesity during childhood can track into adulthood, obese children are as much as 10 times more likely to become obese adults. And overweight or obese children are at a greater risk of developing dangerous chronic diseases as adults.
“Diet-related diseases come with a hefty price tag. Nationally, we spend $210 billion each year treating obesity-related illnesses,” said Jeffrey O’Hara, agricultural economist and co-author of the report. “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.”
Taxpayers subsidize food in a variety of ways, from crop subsidies to underwriting the meals on school lunch trays. And today’s unhealthy food system means that taxpayers are on the hook for a significant portion of the treatment costs of obesity-related illnesses, through Medicaid Medicare, and other public health care programs.
The report sheds light on the importance of strong nutrition standards in schools. In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which required that foods served in school lunch programs meet federal nutrition standards. The law spurred schools to serve up more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Yet, despite this progress, school meals still feature a cornucopia of junk foods and could do more to encourage healthy eating.
By September 30, 2015, Congress must again reauthorize the National School Lunch Program and related programs—another chance for Congress to improve school nutrition. UCS recommends that Congress maintain the gains made in the 2010 law, while increasing funding to programs that support serving nutritious produce in schools. Congress should also increase the federal reimbursement rate for school lunches to assist schools with providing healthier lunches.
“Kids spend much of their day in school, so investing taxpayer dollars to improve meals there is a powerful way to set all children on track for a healthier future and curb obesity-related healthcare expenditures,” said Haynes-Maslow. “Let’s give schools the resources they need to put more healthy foods on kids’ lunch trays now.”