Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Study indicates federal school-meal program contributed to obesity before changes were made

Federal school-meal programs may have contributed to obesity among financially vulnerable children from 1998 to 2007, according to a study by Virginia Tech researchers published in Health Economics. The data preceded changes to the meal program in 2010, but researchers said the results "shed light on the magnitude of needs for nutrition improvement for the school meal programs before" that year's Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

The study followed 21,260 students from kindergarten through eighth grade and compared eligible students who participated in the program to eligible students who chose not to participate. The largest effect of the program "is on those students living in rural areas," the researchers wrote. They also found that low-students in low-income families and those in the Northeast and South, as well as rural children, "are most susceptible to the problem," Amy Loeffler reports for Virginia Tech. "The study found that these children consume one-third to one-half of their daily meals at school."

Using body-mass index, a measure of obesity, researchers found that "children who were most likely to be overweight came from families who participate in both the school breakfast and lunch programs consistently throughout their elementary and intermediate school years," Loeffler writes. Researchers also "confirmed the short-term risk of being overweight imposed by the school lunch program." The study was funded by the Department of Agriculture, which runs the program.

The researchers said they considered socioeconomic factors, such as gender, race/ethnicity, age, weight, whether the school is Title I (high-poverty), number of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals, household income, parents' education level, whether or not the mother works full-time, whether or not the parents are married, numbers of meals families eat together, whether or not families are food-insecure, and urbanity. Researchers said they were unable to control for parents' weight, what students ate outside school and more accurate indicators of their physical activity, which could affect weight.

The researchers said more study is needed to gauge the effect of changes in the program, and also because its recent Community Eligibility Provision allows schools with certain levels of low-income households to make all students eligible for the program, regardless of income. Though the researchers made clear that their data proceeded President Obama's election and his wife's campaign to improve school meals, conservative information outlets "have been having a field day" with the study, with headlines blaming Michelle Obama for "making kids fat," Helena Bottemiller Evich reports for Politico.

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