Blog Post

Is The School Lunch Program Making Students Less Healthy?

 

Key Words: Nutrition Education, Lunch, Obesity, NSLP, High School

Introduction

According to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) provides lunches to over 31 million children each school day (National School Lunch Program, n.d.). The school lunch program is a reliable, dependable and important program to keep students fed and guarantee that ⅓ of the DRI for macronutrients is met daily. While NSLP continues to benefit the community from a hunger and financial standpoint, it must be noted that obesity rates in adolescents continue to rise. Is it possible that the standards set by the NSLP could be contributing to the obesity epidemic?  Perhaps students aged 13-19 years old are more susceptible to poor eating behaviors because of their newfound independence, lack of nutrition knowledge/education and their food choices available to them in school. The goal moving forward would be to increase awareness of healthy eating to ultimately decrease the risk of obesity later in life through a nutrition education program mandated by schools in New Jersey.  Students will understand the importance of healthy eating and develop simple strategies towards maintaining a healthier lifestyle. 

 

Obesity is on the Rise

In 2016, by definition, 13% of the world’s population was considered obese. According to the CDC, 21% of 13-19 year olds are overweight/obese (Overweight & Obesity Statistics, 2017). This graph to the right represents overwight and obese children based by region (Overweight & Obesity Statistics, 2017). Overweight & Obesity Statistics, 2017

In New Jersey, approximately 1 out of every 4 adults are obese with 23% of NJ highschool students being classified as overweight or obese (Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Obesity, 2018).  In 2008, $2.2 billion was spent on obesity health care costs while that cost quadrupled in 2018 to $9.3 billion. (Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Obesity, 2018). Inventions must be in place for the health of adolescents to minimize their risk of obesity.

This chart shows the obesity percentage in NJ high school students. In 2019 it was reported that 11.9% of students are obese which represents a 3.2% increase since 2013. Since 2000, the percentage of obesity in NJ high schools has continued to steadily increase. This blog is posing the question, is the school lunch program healthy?

What is the National School Lunch Program?

 First, we must better understand what NSLP is. The NSLP is regulated by federal law and provides low-cost or free lunches to 29.7 million children daily at a cost of $13.8 billion. Free lunches are available to children in households with incomes at or below 130 percent of poverty and reduced-price lunches are available to children in households with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of poverty. More information on NSLP can be found at https://www.nj.gov/agriculture/divisions/fn/childadult/school_lunch.html. Lunches must meet ⅓ of the DRI, however are not nutritionally adequate. The chart below shows the minimum requirements for calories, protein, fat, calcium, iron vitamin A and C (Institute of Medicine, nd.). Saturated fat is not required. It is important to note that these requirements are for the complete meal, however students have the flexibility to pick and choose the components they would like. Therefore, it can not be implied that all students are receiving adequate nutrition. If these students are going to           

                                                                                                                                                                   (Institute of Medicine, nd.)

have the independence to make their own food choices, then it is incumbent upon the school to provide the tools for children to make smart choices. Without that, school meals will promote a false sense of healthy eating and poor eating habits will prevail. 

Adolescents participating in NSLP are provided with a meal that meets the DRI requirements, and as such, qualifies as a complete meal in the eyes of the government. Kids are probably psyched to eat french fries (vegetable), chicken nuggets (protein) and sugary fruit juice (fruit). Tasty? Maybe. Healthy? Definitely not.  While this meal may meet the standards of a DRI prepared meal, it is high in fat, starch, and sugar.  As a registered dietitian, I have worked in a high school and have seen this firsthand.  Schools must comply with NSLP guidelines, and this meal dynamic works. While following the strict interpretation of a nutrition label, micronutrients may be met in the acceptable quantities.  However from a registered dietitians perspective, this is proving an unhealthy lifestyle and instilling the belief to the children that fries, juice and chicken nuggets represent a complete and healthy meal. Why do school lunches fail to meet the gold standard of nutrition?

 

What Can be Done?

While I understand that this issue must be addressed at a policy level and there is a lot of work to be done there, implementing a nutrition program will educate students about a healthy diet and foods to support a healthy lifestyle. Educating children on the food groups, how to read a nutrition facts label, and following easy recipes will make small, yet impactful changes to these students’ well being. A great example curriculum of basic nutrition knowledge can be found at https://4-h.org. Students will better understand the relationship food has on their health and the associated risk factors with a diet rich in saturated fats and sugar. Nutrition implementation in highschool schools would be a start towards promoting a healthier lifestyle. For example, bringing kids together, perhaps with an assembly, would provide a crash course explaining the basics like the five food groups and how to identify items that are classified as low fat and high salt. They would discuss effects of added sugars, fried foods, processed foods, etc.  No one, but the students, can determine what food they eat. At the cafeteria, they must become vigilant and aware that not all foods are created equal. Instead of an option for the burger and fries, you can always choose a salad loaded with veggies and protein, or even vegetable soup, a piece of bread and maybe a deli sandwich. All things can fit into their diet, but the importance of this nutrition education program will be to get the students more involved with the foods, their choices and understanding the benefits of maintaining a healthy diet.

References:

Booker, C. (2020, February 13). All Info – S.3293 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): Food and Nutrition Education in Schools Act of 2020. Retrieved September 18, 2020, from https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/3293/all-info

Childhood Obesity Facts. (2019, June 24). Retrieved November 11, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/childhood.html

 FACT SHEET: Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act School Meals Implementation. (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2020, from https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2014/05/20/fact-sheet-healthy-hunger-free-kids-act-school-meals-implementation

Federal Nutrition Standards for School Meals. (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2020, from https://meals4kids.org/federal-nutrition-standards-school-meals

FoodCorps. (2020, February 13). What is the Food and Nutrition Education In Schools Act of 2020? Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://foodcorps.org/food-and-nutrition-education-in-schools-act-of-2020/

Healthy-Food-Choices-In-Schools. (2019, June 13). Tray Waste Part III: Effectively Present Your Data. Retrieved October 16, 2020, from https://healthy-food-choices-in-schools.extension.org/tray-waste-part-iii-effectively-present-your-data/

Hunger, J. M., Major, B., Blodorn, A., & Miller, C. T. (2015). Weighed Down by Stigma: How Weight-Based Social Identity Threat Contributes to Weight Gain and Poor Health. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 9(6), 255-268. doi:10.1111/spc3.12172

Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Nutrition Standards for National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. ( January 01). Introduction. Retrieved December 02, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK214991/?report=reader

National School Lunch Program. (n.d.). Retrieved September 09, 2020, from https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/child-nutrition-programs/national-school-lunch-program

Overweight & Obesity Statistics. (2017, August 01). Retrieved December 02, 2020, from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-statistics/overweight-obesity

Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Obesity New Jersey Fact Sheet. (2018). Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.nj.gov/health/nutrition/services-support/breastfeeding/Obesity%20Data%20Fact%20Sheet_Dec2016_FINAL.PDF