Thursday, August 11, 2016

Tech Study: Free School Meals Fattening Our Kids

Virginia Tech researcher Wen You: School lunch and fat kids.
A new Virginia Tech study has come to a conclusion I would never have dreamed was true: that school free meal programs for poor children is making them fat. the study was run by Wen You of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and studied 21,260 students followed from kindergarten to eighth grade and discovered that the most vulnerable kids were in rural America, the South and Northeast.

The kids ate government-funded breakfasts and lunches, which in general accounted for as much as half of their food in a given day.

This study is especially interesting to me because I spent some of my school years--after my father died when I was 13--eating free school lunches, which I always liked. They were mostly institutional: canned veggies, cheap meats, milk and little containers of stuff I could rarely identify. But the burgers, heavy on pepper and cooked thoroughly, were always good. I never got enough of them. And I never got fat because at home we didn't have a lot to supplement those lunches. What I recall most markedly is being called to the front of the class every Monday morning to get my free meal ticket for the week. It was all very public. The school system could not have humiliated me worse if that was the intention, and not just its own ignorance.

Says You, “This study identifies the hardest battles in crafting policy to alleviate children in low-income populations being overweight.”The study was published in the journal Health Economics. “We found that the longer children were in the programs, the higher their risk of being overweight. ... The question now is what to do in order to not just fill bellies, but make sure those children consume healthy and nutritious food — or at least not contribute to the obesity epidemic.”

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act took effect in 2014-2015 school year."It’s potentially troubling since even the nutritional targets of previous standards were not being met satisfactorily prior to this new legislation, and now there are potentially millions more kids who could be affected by accessing free school meals,” says You.

You and her colleague Kristen Capogrossi, a former doctoral student at Virginia Tech, now of RTI, found that long-term participation posed the largest risk of being overweight.

Says You, “Policymakers need to consider all the aspects of school meal programs – from availability and affordability to nutritional content and tastiness. It is important to have extra policy support that will allow funding for programs, such as chef-to-school and farm-to-school, as well as culinary training for cafeteria staff so kids actually enjoy eating what is ultimately prepared for them."

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