In mid-November the Obama administration's push to change the standards for what is acceptable in school lunches was derailed by Congress. Unhealthy foods such as pizza and french fries will continue to be served, and pizza will still count as a serving of vegetables. In any case, a recent study indicates that school lunches do provide health benefits to students. A study by Craig Gundersen, a U. of I. professor of agricultural and consumer economics; Brent Kreider, of Iowa State University; and John Pepper, of the University of Virginia, recently was published in the Journal of Econometrics. It showed that the federally funded National School Lunch Program helps combat food scarcity and childhood obesity. The program provides free and reduced-price meals to more than 31 million children each school day, and according to the study, improves the health outcomes of students of families under the federal poverty line. Gundersen discussed the study findings and the role of government in school lunch programs with News Bureau intern Emily Banas.
How do school lunches improve the health outcomes of children receiving them?
We found that children receiving free or reduced price meals are less likely to be food insecure, obese, or in fair or poor health when compared with eligible children who do not receive these lunches. Consider the case of food insecurity. By providing children with up to 20 additional free or low-cost meals a month during the school year, this means that the child is assured of more meals and, since they don't have to pay for these meals, the child's family then has more money for other meals. As a consequence of having more meals, the child and family are less likely to be food insecure.
Was Congress' attempt to overturn President Obama's plan to make school lunches healthier solely tied to special interests?
I don't think this is the case. Our work shows that school lunches actually make low-income children healthier than if they didn't receive these lunches. Thus, there is not really a need to make school meals "healthier." Given that the president's proposal would have been quite expensive, especially to low-income school districts that can't afford to change the foods they are serving, Congress may have been justified, in light of our work, to overturn this plan.
Does the government have a right to regulate what foods schools serve in lunches?
Currently, the federal government has a whole series of regulations regarding what foods are served in school lunches.
Our work shows that these regulations may have played a role in ensuring better health outcomes for children. Thus, the current set of regulations is probably acceptable; further regulations that may be in place would have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to see whether the additional costs placed on school districts would be justified.
What role, if any, should schools have in working to reduce childhood obesity and promote general good health of students?
Our study indicates that the National School Lunch Program is doing a great job of reducing childhood obesity in the U.S. In other words, without this program, obesity rates among children would be higher, and perhaps substantially higher. At least the National School Lunch Program is doing a great job at reducing obesity; whether other programs put in place by schools are doing a similar job – and whether the costs to those programs can be justified – should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.