School Lunches Contributing to Childhood Obesity

I came across a research paper analyzing whether or not America’s public school lunch program is contributing to childhood obesity. The study was conducted at Northwestern University in Chicago.

America is currently facing a national health crisis that is only worsening with time: childhood obesity. In order to address this pressing issue, it’s necessary to determine key-contributing factors that predispose adolescents, and determine what can be done on a policy level and a personal level to fix this. Economist and public policy professor at the University of Chicago, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, addresses this issue and writes an in-depth research paper titled: Do School Lunches Contribute to Childhood Obesity? Schanzenbach explores the detrimental public policy and institutionalized discrimination that is worsening childhood obesity.

Logically, children and teenagers are expected to consume the majority of their calories at school, considering they spend most of their time per week at their respective elementary, middle and high schools. Economists believe that obesity rates have doubled since 2003 due to an increase in calorie intake by consuming more snacks and meals throughout the day rather than through large meals. Data shows that children who eat breakfast and lunch at school rather are more likely to become obese than those who bring their meals from home. In 1995, Congress was urged to pass the “School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children.” This was one of the first active government interventions regarding children’s nutrition after research proved that most school lunches were not meeting nutrition requirements set by the FDA. Public schools began restricting foods and beverages deemed “unhealthy” while some even decreased the number of vending machines around schools.

Schanzenbach reiterates how important it is to consider all factors such as a child’s race, location of his/her home, family income level, and family background characteristics. For example, she notes that children coming from low-income African American families and poor communities are likely to eat school lunch as public schools typically provide meals for free. This saves low-income families from having to spend on their children’s breakfasts and/or lunches. Parents that provide “brown bag lunches” for their children are typically more involved in their children and cautious about their health. One sample showed that parents who provide their children with lunch are college-educated and are of higher socioeconomic status than those who urge their children to eat school lunches. Approximately 82 percent of students who eat school lunches come from low-income families. When taking exercise into account, there is little evidence relating brown baggers and physical activity. However, it is estimated that those whose parents brown bag their lunches are typically involved in more aerobic exercises ranging from dance classes to school sports programs. This plays a role in reducing obesity and heart problems.
The government plays such an instrumental role in all of this because there are laws in place enabling those under or just above the federal poverty line to eat school meals for free, whereas children who aren’t income-eligible for the lunch subsidy are likelier to eat their own lunches and thus have better health outcomes. Those who are income-eligible are also likelier to take part in the School Breakfast Program thus consuming even more calories at school than at home.

With the abundance of data that proves school lunches substantially increase the probability that a child becomes obese, what can be done on a policy level to combat this? The overall finding is that children consume about 40 more calories per day by eating school meals; because these 40 calories are in fact significant, would decreasing the caloric intake at schools help? The issue is that the purpose of these school lunch programs are to combat hunger, yet providing quality nutritious food for public schools nation-wide is very costly. The best solution is policy intervention that vouches for school meals that meet nutrition requirements and that provide healthier options that those currently offered. However, Schanzenbach believes it’s important to target higher-income families regarding policy intervention for healthier lunches, because they can afford it more than low-income families and are less likely to have children suffering from hunger.

Finally, school lunches only explain part of the general obesity rate and are not the sole cause of this national health crisis. “The results should be interpreted with caution, as they are estimated based on a group of young elementary school students who likely have less autonomy over their food choices than older students and might not be easily generalized to an older population,” Schanzenbach says. It’s important that this country addresses this issue and urges interventions that combat obesity starting at a young age.

Schazenbach, D. W. (2009). Do school lunches contribute to childhood obesity? The Journal of Human Resources, 44(3), 684-709.


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