Fixing childhood obesity: A Slate hive project.

Feb. 24 2011 12:59 PM

School Lunch Is Not the Answer

Improving school food is only a small step toward reducing childhood obesity.

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And yet. Even if schools had the funds, the skilled staff, and the kitchens to produce such meals—three huge ifs, which could cost as much as three times our current spending, or $27 billion—it wouldn't be enough to send the trend lines in the other direction. Because while the proponents of school-lunch reform trumpet the studies that bolster their case, there is equally compelling research (PDF) that says parents are the real shapers of children's eating habits; kids learn what to eat at home. Frequent, sit-down, home-cooked family meals—with the television off and parents and children engaged in conversation about the day's events, the food, etc.—are key to developing a healthy lifestyle. In addition to avoiding obesity and other diet-related problems, kids whose parents create this kind of kitchen-table environment tend to do better in school and are less likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol. On the flipside, parents who follow marketers' cues and serve "kids' food" (such as Dora the Explorer yogurt and all varieties of chicken nuggets) raise children who may be resistant to trying new foods that are not as intrinsically appealing as the high-sugar, high-fat alternatives they've been weaned on.

Schools can only do so much to compete with the $10 billion annual bombardment of food advertising and the steady diet of burgers, fries, pizza, and chicken nuggets those ads are pushing. Moreover, to make their numbers, schools must serve food that the kids—their customers—are willing to pay for. "The kids have had the fast food. And they have adjusted their appetites," says Rhonda McCoy, the school food service director of West Virginia's Cabell County. Last year, with the (sometimes unwelcome) assistance of Jamie Oliver, McCoy overhauled her entire menu, scrapping heat-and-serve entrees in favor of from-scratch versions of sloppy Joes and vegetarian pizza. But students continue to resist the healthier versions, and school cooks are resorting to tricks to hide healthier ingredients, such as beans (once a staple of the Appalachian diet) in the new dishes.

All this is not to say that reforming school lunch doesn't matter. It does, and advocates should continue to fight for the necessary resources to make genuine improvements in school nutrition. But food reformers need to make as strong a case for changing what kids eat outside school as what they do inside the cafeteria. Children are not 29 percent more likely to be obese because they eat school lunch, as that American Heart Journal study might seem to indicate. Instead, the children who eat school lunch—specifically, the ones who are most reliant on school meals—also are our poorest children: the ones without access to fresh produce in their neighborhoods, without parks and playgrounds to run around in, and, often, without parents who value good, healthy food.

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The good news is that the Obama administration acknowledges the importance of addressing these poverty-related causes of childhood obesity. Last May, the White House unveiled a task force report on childhood obesity that outlined five strategies to reverse the epidemic. Improving school food was one, but so were better prenatal care, improving access to healthy foods by eliminating food deserts, increasing children's physical activity, and empowering parents to make better decisions about what they feed their kids.

That last recommendation is where food reformers can play a key role. They can help get out the message that fast and cheap and easy are not the measures by which food should be judged. They can counter the message from right-wingers that anyone who champions healthy food is elitist and anyone who listens is a victim of the nanny state. This education effort is the most important piece of the food-reform puzzle. And if advocates can succeed on this front, their victory will not be just for chubby children but for everyone.

Jane Black, formerly a food writer at the Washington Post, is currently at work on a book about food culture and class in Huntington, W.Va. She blogs at www.janeblack.net.

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