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    The National School Lunch Program: Contributing to Childhood Obesity?

    Continuing with the discussion of the National School Lunch Program from last week, I found criticism of the nutritional value of the foods provided as well as steps the Obama administration is taking to curb childhood obesity.

    The National School Lunch Program is a federally funded program that provides reduced-price or free lunches daily to over 30.5 million American children.

    To qualify for free meals children must come from families “with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level”. To give you an example, 130% of the poverty level for a family of four is a total household income of $28,665.

    Participating schools receive cash subsidies for the lunches (and in some cases after-school snacks). The average cost for one free lunch for one student for one day is $2.68.

    According to the official website of the National School Lunch Program, the total cost of providing these free and low-cost lunches was $9.8 billion in 2008. That’s a big price tag, especially considering that many students find the food “nasty” and refuse to eat it. (See last week’s post.) And, as you’ll see below, the food may be contributing to the rising rate of childhood obesity.

    Here is an excerpt from a U.S. News & World Report article from 2009 called “School Lunches Too Fatty and Sugary, Critics Say” that examines the low nutritional value of school-provided lunches. Writer Amanda Gardner reports:

    “Unhealthy eating at school, these food experts believe, is contributing to the surge in obesity rates among U.S. children. Obesity rates have more than doubled among infants and toddlers aged 2 to 5, quadrupled in children aged 6 to 11 and more than tripled among adolescents aged 12 to 19, according to an editorial in the journal.

    “The rising rates have health experts concerned about a nascent epidemic of obesity-related diseases, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, in young people…

    “Sam Kass, the chef who followed the Obamas to the White House, also has put the school lunch program under fire. According to a report in The New York Times in January, Cass attributes the nutritional shortcomings in school lunches, at least in part, to the use of donated surplus agricultural commodities that result from government subsidies.

    “ ‘As a result, he says, meals served to students are low in vegetables and disproportionately high in fat, additives, preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup,’ the Times report said.”

    To me, the frightening thing about this article is the idea that we’re making children fat by serving them free, low-nutrition meals to the tune of about $10 billion dollars a year. So we’re spending lots of money on foods that kids either find nasty and won’t eat or will eat to the detriment of their health. Government at its finest?

    In recent news, First Lady Michelle Obama looks at how America might combat childhood obesity by changing the foods provided in schools and motivating children to exercise more.

    Here’s an excerpt with source information at the bottom:

    “…First lady Michelle Obama launched her highly buzzed campaign to fight childhood obesity today, a problem she called one of the ‘most serious threats to (children’s) future.’

    “The initiative, dubbed ‘Let’s Move,’ presents a bold and ambitious agenda to reshape how American children eat, move, and live.

    “…Among the initiatives in the agenda are bringing healthier lunches and snacks into school cafeterias, eliminating “food deserts” by opening grocery stores in under-served communities and encouraging children to be more active by joining the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge.

    “…Childhood obesity threatens to make this generation of American children the first to live shorter lives than their parents, doctors say. And those lives could be riddled with some surprising consequences. Overweight girls are more likely to enter puberty earlier, while overweight boys tend to have delayed puberty.

    “Additionally, obese children are more likely to suffer from asthma and the extra weight can cause liver problems and Type 2 diabetes, which is an adult disease. The arteries of overweight children often resemble those of a 45-year-old, which can lead to heart disease.

    “Obese children are also more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, experts say.

    “…The White House has created a Web site as a resource to parents offering facts, strategies, healthy recipes and exercise plans.”

    “White House Launches ‘Let’s Move’ Campaign to Fight Childhood Obesity: First Lady Michelle Obama Pledges to Increase Number of Healthy Schools”
    By Sharyn Alfonsi and Christine Brozyna
    ABC News, Washington, Feb. 9, 2010

    I welcome any comments on the matter!


    Comment from Kerry
    Time February 15, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    When I was teaching, I noticed there were few truly healthy options (although they had removed all “full fat” chips, candy, and sugar sodas- yet kept Gatorade) for kids in the schools regardless of whether they were on the free or reduced school lunch program. I have to say the free lunches were healthier options than the paying kids got, but still seemed lacking in nutrition. One piece of fruit and a sandwich with tomatoes and iceburg lettuce on the side do not constitute good nutrition. The kids threw away the “veggies” that were supposed to go on the sandwiches and picked at the rest. Kids with money could buy nachos and strawberries with whipped cream. There was certainly a stigma despite the fact that 85% of kids at my school qualified for the school lunches. Those kids had to get in a special line, and everyone knew who was “different” so kids often opted to buy a bag of chips (usually baked, but not exactly nutritional) rather than get in that line and eat the lousy food.

    I would love to see a program where eating healthy and learning about how to do that became part of the curriculum. If every school could have an agricultural component, that would do wonders. Why not grow the fruits and veggies the kids need and give them ownership in making the change rather than mandating lousy foods? Most schools- includint the inner city one where I taught- have room for something of that nature. The food grown could also even translate into a cooking class where good healthy recipes and techniques could be taught. It’s time to remember we need to teach the whole child; it’s especially relevant when the economy gets so bad that parents have to work 2 jobs to support their families and don’t have time to teach their children these kinds of lessons. Simply put, it’s becoming part of our society’s fabric that we as a society (certainly including our schools) have to step in where parents no longer can.

    Comment from admin
    Time February 16, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Kerry! It does seem that given how overweight and obese many children and their families are becoming that nutrition and other healthy eating lessons need to be taught. Whether they are taught in schools is debatable in my opinion, though those lessons would fit in very well in health classes and possibly P.E. I also think health practitioners could do more to educate their patients on steps they can take to improve diet and overall health.

    Comment from Dan Wright
    Time February 16, 2010 at 10:02 pm

    Excellent topic, Carey. Thanks for shedding light on this subject. Kind of typical of the American way: good idea (feed children of poor families), but once again, poor execution (too much cheap carbs and fat). I wonder how we can support Michelle in her quest to change things?

    Comment from admin
    Time February 17, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    Thanks for commenting, Dan. I like the way you put it: “good idea…bad execution.” Unfortunately, the government often has inefficient, expensive ways of implementing programs. I’ll let you know if I come across information on how people can show Michelle Obama support. I’m interested to see more details on her plan of action.

    Comment from GJohnson
    Time April 18, 2010 at 3:20 am

    The classes that teach students and their families healthy cooking and nutrition are being or have been removed from schools. Family Consumer Science classes (formerly known as Home Economics) that helps students incorporate this knowledge seems to be none essential. Family Consumer Science Teacher should be seen as indispensible and highly valuable in this endeavor that impacts every area of life, because this is their area of expertise.

    Comment from Haywood Jablome
    Time December 8, 2010 at 10:51 am

    If you qualify for subsidized lunch then you also qualify for food stamps. If you don’t like your options at school you can pack something else from the subsidized food you have at home. Are the children poor and hungry, or obese? The two are mutually exclusive. The problem is not childhood obesity, it is parental defect. Further, you are supposed to learn to cook at home. We can’t afford to hire teachers to train you in basic life skills and the students should not be subjected to this waste of time. If that were the case we would also require coursework in how to clean a toilet and how to cut your grass, assuming of course you do not exploit illegal labor to perform these tasks.

    Comment from llmc
    Time January 31, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    Ok, perhaps the school lunches aren’t as healthy as we’d like them to be…but I’d like to know how ONE unhealthy meal contributes to obesity. I’ve had lunch at school with my son and have eaten the food myself; they give me a little more bc i’m an adult but the portions they’re serving to the kids are not big. How about the foods that are served at home? Has anyone noticed that most obese kids have obese parents? Has anyone ever glanced at a shopping cart of an obese person? It’s not filled with fresh fruits and vegetables that’s for sure! Keep in mind the weekends and holidays the kids AREN’T in school–what are they eating at HOME during this time? Healthy eating habits come from the HOME, and it’s pretty simple really. Soda, pastries, fatty meats, NOT HEALTHY…Water, fruits, veggies, LEAN meats, HEALTHY…how hard was that? Those were just a few examples; with the internet available, I’m sure if parents didn’t know and wanted to, they can look it up. There’s no excuse (except for perhaps a medical reason) for being obese, and being ignorant as to how to eat healthy.

    Comment from designer gym bags for women
    Time October 25, 2012 at 10:52 am

    Hi there! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick
    shout out and say I genuinely enjoy reading your articles.
    Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that cover the
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    Comment from admin
    Time October 25, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    Thanks for the compliment! I subscribe to Whitney Tilson’s email list. He’s an ed reformer who sends weekly emails on the subject. At the top of his blog page ( are instructions on how to subscribe.

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