Stricter school lunch nutrition standards reduce childhood obesity: Study

Several students pick up breakfast in the cafeteria of the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex in Los Angeles, California.

A new study out this week published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has found that school lunch programs with stricter nutrition standards may be helping to reduce obesity in children, especially those who receive free or reduced lunches.

The study focused on states whose nutrition standards for school lunch programs were stricter than is mandated by the USDA. Those states showed lower rates of obesity among low-income children who relied on the school lunch programs.

“So that basically provided stronger evidence that when you provide healthier school meals, it’s associated with lower obesity risk,” says Daniel Taber, the lead author of the study.

The study also found that kids who ate the reduced calorie lunches did not compensate by purchasing unhealthy foods outside the lunchroom. Executive director of the New York Coilition for Healthy School Food, Amie Hamlin wasn’t surprised by this finding.

“Our bodies need certain nutrients and when we give our bodies those nutrients it reduces our cravings” says Hamlin.

The issue of what foods we should recommend for healthy school lunches is pretty clear cut according to Dr. Sharon Akabas, director of the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University.

“And when we don’t make those recommendations, when we soften the regulations, usually they have been industry driven and not in the interest of children’s or the nation’s health” Akabas says.

The food industry opposed new stricter standards arguing that they did not provide enough calories in school lunches. Opponents also pointed to the estimated $3.2 billion cost of implementing the new regulation.

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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