Child Obesity and School Nutrition – Part II

When you look at having things like additional school funding, better resources, and more highly-qualified teachers, suburban school districts beat urban and rural districts hands down. But strangely enough, students in urban and rural settings have better access to healthy foods than their suburban peers.

To understand why, you need to understand the obvious; politics and money influence everything public school-related.

When President Harry Truman created the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) in 1946, his goal was to ensure all kids had access to healthy foods while also bolstering the US agricultural commodities market.  Whether intentional or not, school districts were given the choice to opt-in or opt-out of the NSLP.  This caused the discrepancy in school-provided breakfast and lunch programs today.

This is particularly true since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010.   The act came with sweeping changes to the nutritional standards required of schools, including, but to limited to, the following:

  • All food served at school, including in vending machines, must follow the government’s guidelines
  • More fruits, vegetables, and whole grains must be served at each meal
  • Milk products must be fat-free or low-fat
  • Reduced portion sizes must be served based on caloric intake
  • All foods must be low in sodium, sugar, and fat content

These changes came with a significantly higher cost, but only to the school districts that have a much lower rate of students who qualify for free and reduced breakfasts and lunches.

In other words, opting into the NSLP, particularly the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), is a great idea for school districts that have a large population of low-income students, because even though the cost of feeding them more nutritious foods is higher, that higher cost is subsidized by the government.   

Districts with a small population of low-income students must absorb the higher costs within their school budgets. The result is suburban districts tend to opt-out of the program while urban and rural districts tend to opt-in.   So, children in suburban districts are more likely to have food options that are less healthy for breakfast and lunch. 

These guidelines are very beneficial for students living in lower-income areas for two reasons:

  1. School meals are now much healthier than many foods found in restaurants, grocery stores, convenience stores, and food trucks thanks to the strict nutritional content set forth by the NSLP.

Child obesity isn’t created or solved at school.  It starts with what, how much and how parents feed their kids at home.  While the latest food guidelines help ensure students are eating healthy at school, it does not impact the challenges of obesity due to what happens after school.  Child obesity is also caused by lack of physical activity which is why many schools have adopted the Play 60 Challenge.