As Childhood Obesity Declines, Advocates Worry About Scaled Back School Lunch Guidelines

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Between 2009 and 2012, the rates of obesity dropped 3.7 percentage points among children aged 2 to 5 and 0.3 percentage points among children aged 6 to 11, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

During the presidency of Barack Obama, campaigns such as the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act and the Let’s Move campaign were born. Their purpose was to create healthy lunches for kids in school and to reduce childhood obesity.

Carolina Ríos

Such initiatives are in doubt now that President Donald J. Trump has taken office. In his first major act, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue began scaling back federal healthy eating requirements in school lunches that had been championed by former First Lady Michelle Obama. Beginning next school year, schools can request an exemption from whole grain requirements and will not have to cut the salt in meals. They will also be able to serve 1 percent flavored milk instead of nonfat.

“Childhood obesity is a major problem,” said Daniel Jones, communications director of Rudd’s Center for Food Policy and Obesity in Connecticut. “I don’t think it’s getting any better. It is true that society has been doing helpful campaigns, but there’s still so much to do about it.”

The healthy kids act and Let’s Move campaigns predicted a 5 percent decrease of childhood obesity rates by 2030 nationally.

The agriculture department reported in 2016 that 30.3 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program. This means that any changes in nutrition programs can affect millions of children. According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, children consume up to 50 percent of their daily calories at school. Cafeteria meals have become an essential part of children’s nutrition.

Nutrition advocates such as Jones said Perdue’s scaling back of the healthy eating requirements are short-sighted.

“People are always choosing what’s easier and cheaper instead of what’s healthier,” he said.

Jones and others said healthy food may be pricey, but it’s better to spend some extra dollars and nourish your body than eat excessive fat and processed sugar.

Perdue has argued that since 2012, when a new set of nutrition standards were put in place, schools have complained about how rigid and expensive these requirements have become. The healthy kids act and Let’s Move rules were projected to cost $3.2 billion over five years, but Perdue said they had cost states an additional $1.22 billion only in 2015, The New York Times reported.

One of the reasons Trump’s administration is backing off the strict requirements is because of a study sponsored by the USDA. That research showed that over 60 percent of school food officials observed more waste of salads and vegetables after improving the menu, CNN reported. But Jones questioned those findings.

“That’s not true. There was another study made by the UConn Rudd Center, that showed how kids are eating more than they did before,” he said.

He said the rates of waste decreased, and that there would always be some waste no matter what the school lunch menu has on it.

Before Let’s Move and the healthy kids act were started, 94 percent of American schools served meals that met vitamin and mineral requirements, but exceeded limits for fat and saturated fat, according to Kaiser Permanente.

Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign lead to many collaborations. For example, Walmart announced that it would low the cost of fruits, vegetables, and whole grain products by $1 billion in 2011. The company also promised to work with manufacturers to eliminate trans fats and remove 10 percent of the sugar and 25 percent of the sodium in the food it sells by 2015.

Regardless of changes to school menus and regulations, concerns about childhood obesity remain strong. Dr. Josh Axe, founder of a popular natural health website, said portion sizes, school lunches, an absence of healthy fats and consumption of sugary and ultra-processed foods are all factors fueling childhood obesity. Jones agreed, saying food marketing and school meals continue to increase unhealthy eating habits.

A 2011 study reported by The New York Times showed that 1,000 sixth graders in several schools in southeastern Michigan who had the school lunch were 29 percent more likely to be obese than those who brought lunch from home. Why? Mainly because in a typical week, school menus included fatty food, such as chicken tenders, cheeseburgers and pizzas with sides of cheesy rotini, mozzarella sticks or French fries, according to the study.

Carolina Ríos is a high school student from Paraguay.