The fight against childhood obesity has been   escalated.  Along with a strong focus on exercise, the Obama administration is reviewing/revising school lunch standards.

It comes as no surprise that childhood obesity has been steadily increasing.  Thinking back to the 70’s while in elementary school, the number of obese or marginally obese children were few and far between.   Fast forward 40 years and many of the children in the elementary schools appear somewhat to grossly overweight.

Personal observation is now backed by several reputable studies.   A current report tells us that childhood obesity is a major health crisis among children (Karnik, S. & Kanekar, A   1). It also indicates that its prevalence is increasing in both developed and underdeveloped countries.  Here in the U.S., the National Examination Surveys and National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys show the percentages as follows:

Age (in years)    NHANES 1971-1974         NHANES 2007-2008

2-5                          5.0                                          16.9

6-11                       4.0                                          19.6

12-19                     4.6                                          18.1

The current administration understands that school environment strongly impacts the behavior, the health and well-being of students (www.letsmove. gov/white-house-task-force-obesity-report-president).  In an effort to combat childhood obesity, the administration has launched the Let’s Move Campaign.  As part of the effort to fight childhood obesity, the Obama Administration is targeting school lunches.  There are four major areas target by the initiative: 1) improvements in the quality of school meals,  2) changes in other foods available at school to ensure that all food sold at schools support healthful diets,  3) modifications to curriculum, school program operations, and community policies and infrastructure to match changes in school foods, and 4) revisions to policies and practices in juvenile justice and other institutional settings to ensure that all childhood and youth environments support healthy eating.

Although the meals provided under the federally-financed National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Programs must meet a range of food-based and nutrition-based standards, the most recent national study showed that the meals were not always meeting program standards.  One would think that packed lunches provided by parents would be more nutritious; however, that is not the case.  They often fall below the mark.  (Rees, G.A., Richards, C.J., & Gregory, J.  420). Parents do want to provide better lunches, but there are several challenges to doing so.  Convenience, child preference, cost and food safety prevented them from providing better lunches.  The amount of time allowed for eating and lack of refrigeration were school based barriers both impacted the types of food selected.

Providing foods with better nutritional content is a great start in fighting childhood obesity.   Nutrition Education is an area that needs more attention.  How do we get teachers and parents to successfully convey the message that “we are what we eat”? The habits developed as children are often continued through adulthood.  For that reason, equipping children to consistently make the right choices would be a big win in fighting not only childhood obesity, but adult obesity as well.

One of the barriers in selecting right foods for inner city students is the stigma attached to those who participate in National School Lunch Program (Bhatia, R., Jones, P, & Reicker, Z.  1380). USDA data for the 2004-2005 school year shows that on average, 85% of students in the middle school level and 79% of students at the high school level who qualified for free or reduced lunches usually participated; however, according to a2009 national survey 25% of high schools had less than 32% participation rate, and 10% had less than a 14% participation rate among qualified students.   The former secretary of the USDA, Shirley Watkins pointed out:

“Competitive foods undermine the nutrition integrity of programs and discourage participation… since only children with money can purchase competitive foods; children may perceive that school meals are primarily for poor children rather than nutrition programs for all children”   (1308).

A study conducted by the Journal of school health also found that school level stigma and economic neighborhood contextual factors were significantly associated with the probability of participation in the NSLP (Mirthcheva, D.M. & Powell, L.M,  2009).  Studies clearly show that parents and teachers need to do a better job at equipping students in making better choices.  As is the case with lower income students, how do drive home the message that NSLP lunches are not a sign of inferiority?

Works Cited

Bhatia, R., Jones, P.,&  Reicker, Z.  (2011). Competitive foods, discrimination, and participation in the national school lunch program.  American Journal of Public Health, 101(8), 1380-1386.

Karnick, S. & Amar, K. (2012).  Childhood Obesity: A global public health crisis.  International Journal of Preventive Medicine, 3(1). 1-7.

Mirtheva, D.M., & Powell, L.M.  (2009). Participation in the national school lunch program: importance of school-level and neighborhood contextual factors.  Journal of School Health, American School Health Association 79(10), 485-494.

Rees, G.A., Richards, C.J., & Gregory, J.  (2008). Food and nutrient intakes of primary school children: a comparison of school meals and packed lunches.  The British Dietetic Association Ltd, Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 21. 420-427.