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Childhood obesity: Are school’s responsible?

April 27, 2012

Some Americans believe that schools shoulder a portion of the responsibility for childhood obesity.  Cafeterias sell a la carte snack items (chips, cookies, ice-cream sandwiches, etc.) and serve lunches which are, arguably, not nutritionally sound.  One USDA study found that kids consuming school lunch regularly were more likely to be overweight.  Additionally, those who blame schools for childhood obesity argue that nutrition and the ramifications of obesity need to be included in the academic program: what’s the point of training students to be excellent scientists if they will die young from a lifestyle-related disease?

I don’t buy it.  I don’t think it’s fair to hold schools responsible.

The National School Lunch Program–a program which subsidizes school lunches, providing them free of charge to those from low-income families and keeping them low-cost for all children–is a federal program.  If, as the USDA study suggests, school lunches are partially to blame for childhood obesity, the responsibility should be shouldered by the government and reform should be initiated there.  David Ludwig and Marion Nestle agree: they cite “establishing rigorous standards for nutrition at school” as one of the government’s key responsibilities.

Financially, change at the level of the school is unrealistic.  One healthy, whole foods-based lunch program has been successfully implemented at Abernethy Elementary School in Portland, OR.  The program ties together nutrition education, hands-on involvement for the students in the garden, and fresh, healthy meals.  The program has been a great success, but, it is a special case; it would be unlikely to work in many other schools.

The school operates on the same food budget as other schools participating in the National School Lunch Program: $1.12 to $1.20 per student.  The school’s chef admits that “given very limited time and USDA constraints, it is quite the feat to prepare the daily meal.”  This school is able to get around these challenges thanks to the voluntary help of many parents who work from home or are stay-at-home parents.  In a school district which includes more single-parent households and households in which both parents work demanding jobs, this program would likely not get off the ground.

Additionally, the sale of a la carte items oftentimes funds school activities such as field trips.  This presents a tradeoff.  What’s more important: eliminating snack foods or continuing field trips?

As I said before, responsibility for whatever degree (if any) of childhood obesity caused by school food ought to be shouldered by the government.  Outside of school, the responsibility of providing children with nutritious meals, teaching them good habits, and getting them active falls on their families.

That being said, schools certainly have an opportunity to help by implementing innovative lunch programs and incorporating healthy lifestyle education into their academic program.

WP 4/27

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