Equity & Diversity

Strict Rules for School Meals Could Cut Obesity in Low-Income Students

By Nirvi Shah — April 08, 2013 2 min read
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New federal school lunch regulations that require more servings of fruits and vegetables, more whole-grain content, less salt and fat, and limits on calories could yield a legion of children from low-income families who escape a trend of childhood obesity.

A study published Monday online in JAMA Pediatrics looked at states that cracked down on the content of school meals even before new federal school meal standards, which took effect this school year. A smaller share of students who received free or reduced-price lunches that had to meet these higher nutritional standards—about 12 percent—were overweight than was the case for students who did not eat school lunches.

And in states where state rules about school meals didn’t go beyond federal requirements, students who received free or reduced-price lunches were about twice as likely to be obese than students who didn’t eat school lunch, researchers found—26 percent vs. 14 percent. They were looking at 4,870 students 40 states who were 8th graders during the 2006-07 school year.

“In short, the study found an association between more stringent school meal standards and more favorable weight status, especially among low-income students,” writes New York University professor Marion Nestle, in a related editorial published online the same day in JAMA Pediatrics. (Consider that low-income children are more likely to be obese than their wealthier counterparts in the first place.)

The study provides “important evidence to support the value of strong, far-reaching public health initiatives to counter childhood obesity,” Nestle continues.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture created new rules for school meals last year for the first time in more than a decade. Before they could even take effect, the new rules were tweaked by Congress, which prevented the USDA from limiting servings of potatoes and other starchy vegetables, among other things. Some districts have griped about the new regulations and opted out of federal meal subsidies altogether in response.

Citing the results of this study, Nestle says tweaks to the federal standards will undermine their purpose and aren’t in the best interest of children’s health. “Instead, they are about which food corporations—and the congressional representatives whose election campaigns they support—most benefit from federal purchases of foods for school lunches.”

The researchers, from the University of Illinois at Chicago, examined the possibility that students in states with meal regulations that exceeded requirements set by the USDA offset the nutritious content of school meals by buying snacks and drinks at school—but that didn’t appear to be the case.

Nestle said a previous study by the same researchers found that, in states with strict rules about what kind of foods can be sold as snacks or vending machine fare in competition with school meals, students ate fewer calories and less fat and sugar at school. They also didn’t gain as much weight as students in states with less stringent standards.

Coincidentally, the USDA has been collecting opinions about proposed new standards for these competitive foods—items sold in vending machines, school stores, and a la carte lunch lines at schools. All comments must be sent in by Tuesday—as in tomorrow.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.