Childhood Obesity and the New School Lunches

The USDA released new school-lunch guidelines today, which define how much tomato paste on a slice of pizza is equivalent to a vegetable, and doesn’t restrict potatoes… though the National Potato Council is still concerned that their prize product is considered a “second-class” vegetable.

School lunch

 

I always read stories about Chicago school lunches, because they combine public policy, politics, and food, so it’s a Chicago trifecta. WBEZ reports on a union that’s pushing CPS to… serve better food:

A union that represents about 3,200 CPS food workers on Tuesday released survey findings suggesting that many students and even school principals are not eating the chow. UNITE HERE Local 1 criticized the district’s use of frozen food prepared off site, and called on the Board of Education to “ensure that all new school construction proj­ects are planned with full-size kitchen facilities capable of real cooking.”

Fed Up With Lunch blogger Sarah Wu has more on the survey, part of Unite Here’s Real Jobs, Real Food campaign:

42% of those surveyed felt students are eating the new food

    •    Way lower than previous reporting by the Chicago Tribune

50% of those surveyed reported rarely or never seeing school principals eating school lunch

    •    I’m in my sixth year working for Chicago Public Schools and although I don’t monitor any of my principals’ daily movements in the school, I have never seen a principal eating school lunch

What was the old food like? Here’s what Monica Eng found in 2009, as part of her outstanding reporting on the subject:

It’s lunchtime in a North Side high school, and the cafeteria lines snake into the hall. One line leads to fish nuggets, iceberg lettuce and canned peaches. Another is for burgers and breaded chicken patty sandwiches.

But the longest line leads to lunch workers grabbing paper dishes full of yellow corn chips, topping them with a ball of ground meat and then smothering the ensemble in hot orange cheese product.

There have been a couple recent surveys that add some texture to this unfortunate school-lunch landscape. One is a study out of Penn State that challenges the conventional wisdom on school vending machines:

The researchers, led by Pennsylvania State University’s Jennifer Van Hook, then compared body mass indexes from the 19,450 students, including those who’d spent all four years in junk food-free environments, those who’d left such schools for vending machine-friendly ones, those who’d transferred from vending machine-friendly schools to junk food-free schools, and those who enjoyed access to vending machines for all four years. Regardless of which data sets they contrasted, the researchers were unable to find any sort of connection between obesity and the availability of “unhealthy” snacks in school. In other words, children who could theoretically grab a Snickers bar after class every day for four years were, on average, no heavier than those who couldn’t.

That might seem counter-intuitive—and the BMI thing raises some alarm—but the scary numbers from the last school vending machine study that raised concern had more to do with what the kids ate than how many were buying from the vending machines:

Vending machines are found in 16% of U.S. elementary schools, 52% of middle schools and 88% of high schools. About 22% of students in grades 1 through 12 buy food in vending machines each day – and those purchases added an average of 253 calories to their diets….

Not to mention:

One silver lining: Vending machine customers ate 4% less sodium than other students – an average of 3,287 milligrams per day compared with 3,436 mg for those who didn’t buy from vending machines. That’s probably because the extra snacks made kids too full to eat as much at mealtime, when dishes are especially salty.

It seems compatible with the Penn State study, which suggests that eating habits, more than snack-food availability, are of concern. This reminded me of a 2005 study (PDF) by Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, then of the University of Chicago and now at Northwestern, which found a culprit in the school lunches themselves—not a stretch, given Eng’s reporting:

Using food recall data, I find that children who eat school lunch consume 40-120 more calories at lunch than those who brown bag, but that both groups of children consume the same amount of calories the rest of the day (not including lunch). I estimate that for children an extra 40-120 calories per day would increase the incidence of overweight by 2 to 4 percentile points – the same as the observed increase in overweight. I estimate that if school lunches were made healthier and consistently met the nutrition requirements set for them, the childhood obesity rate would decline.

Stories like this have led to today’s new set of school-lunch guidelines from the USDA, the first in 15 years, which the New York Times discusses at length; among the many things the new guidelines do is halve the allowed amount of sodium over the next ten years, presumably bringing it down below the levels kids have been getting from vending machines. Not everyone’s happy about them:

“Despite the fact that congress said the U.S.D.A. could not limit potatoes in school lunches or breakfast, we still feel like the potato is being downplayed in favor of other vegetables in the new guidelines,” said Mark Szymanski, a spokesman for the [National Potato] council. “It seems the department still consider the potato a second-class vegetable.”

And in an example of how the sausage is almost literally made, the Obama adminstration settled for the tomato-paste equivalent of a vegetable serving from “more than a quarter cup” on a slice of pizza to “about a quarter cup.”

 

Photograph: USDAgov

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