As parents gear up for the back-to-school grind, research has uncovered a problem with school lunches: They're making kids fat and contributing to the childhood obesity problem.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Human Resources and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), used data collected by the Department of Education during the 1998–1999 school year, three years after Congress established the current dietary requirements for school lunches. Breakfasts and lunches should contain no more than 30 percent calories from fat and less than 10 percent from saturated fat, and both must contain an age-appropriate number of calories, while supplying certain percentages of vital nutrients, such as calcium and protein. The data on 13,531 students included their weights in both kindergarten and the spring of third grade, and whether they ate school breakfasts, school lunches, or both.
Just over 11 percent of the children were overweight in kindergarten, and 17 percent were overweight by the time they'd reached third grade. While participation in both the breakfast and lunch programs didn't lead to any significant increase in weight, participation in the national school lunch program only was associated with a significant increase in the probability that a child would be obese by the third grade. Participation in the school breakfast program, though, actually led to a decrease in risk.
"Breakfasts seem to be doing well, but lunch, not so much," says the study's lead author, Daniel Millimet, PhD, professor of economics at Southern Methodist University. He adds that kids who participated in breakfast programs tended to be heavier to begin with, and studies have found that eating breakfast helps control calorie intake later in the day. So school breakfasts could be particularly helpful with the obesity problem. "Once you control for the fact that kids who were participating in breakfast programs were heavier to begin with, the [breakfast] program is actually helping to bring their weight down," he says.
Lunches, on the other hand, seemed to be bad all around. In part, that has to do with the fact that schools are not complying with federal guidelines, he says. "There are a couple of times where the USDA has audited schools to see if they are complying with the guidelines, and the evidence points to the fact that they aren't," he says. His study cites evidence from dietitians with the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, which oversees the national school lunch program and school breakfast programs, who found that anywhere from 10 to 35 percent of schools did not supply students with low-fat lunches. (In most cases, the breakfasts did comply.) Another part of the problem Millimet suggests has to do with a la carte items, such as ice cream sandwiches and sodas, which are exempted from federal nutrition guidelines because kids pay for them out-of-pocket. These aren't the oft-criticized candies and sodas from vending machines but extra items in the cafeteria that are simply another source of revenue for schools.