The study, which was published in the Journal of Human Resources and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), used data collected by the Department of Education during the 1998–1999 school year, three years after Congress established the current dietary requirements for school lunches. Breakfasts and lunches should contain no more than 30 percent calories from fat and less than 10 percent from saturated fat, and both must contain an age-appropriate number of calories, while supplying certain percentages of vital nutrients, such as calcium and protein. The data on 13,531 students included their weights in both kindergarten and the spring of third grade, and whether they ate school breakfasts, school lunches, or both.
Just over 11 percent of the children were overweight in kindergarten, and 17 percent were overweight by the time they'd reached third grade. While participation in both the breakfast and lunch programs didn't lead to any significant increase in weight, participation in the national school lunch program only was associated with a significant increase in the probability that a child would be obese by the third grade. Participation in the school breakfast program, though, actually led to a decrease in risk.
"Breakfasts seem to be doing well, but lunch, not so much," says the study's lead author, Daniel Millimet, PhD, professor of economics at Southern Methodist University. He adds that kids who participated in breakfast programs tended to be heavier to begin with, and studies have found that eating breakfast helps control calorie intake later in the day. So school breakfasts could be particularly helpful with the obesity problem. "Once you control for the fact that kids who were participating in breakfast programs were heavier to begin with, the [breakfast] program is actually helping to bring their weight down," he says.
Lunches, on the other hand, seemed to be bad all around. In part, that has to do with the fact that schools are not complying with federal guidelines, he says. "There are a couple of times where the USDA has audited schools to see if they are complying with the guidelines, and the evidence points to the fact that they aren't," he says. His study cites evidence from dietitians with the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, which oversees the national school lunch program and school breakfast programs, who found that anywhere from 10 to 35 percent of schools did not supply students with low-fat lunches. (In most cases, the breakfasts did comply.) Another part of the problem Millimet suggests has to do with a la carte items, such as ice cream sandwiches and sodas, which are exempted from federal nutrition guidelines because kids pay for them out-of-pocket. These aren't the oft-criticized candies and sodas from vending machines but extra items in the cafeteria that are simply another source of revenue for schools.
"Schools operate under a lot of constraints, and they are trying to do the best they can with what they're given," he says. "I'm sure all schools would like to have fresh vegetables that are local and organic, but that's not affordable." And unfortunately, Congress isn't helping out much. The existing legislation that provides schools with money for school breakfast and lunch programs is set to expire at the end of September, and despite First Lady Michelle Obama's highly publicized attempts to improve school lunches and get children to eat healthier, the Senate recently passed a new version of the bill that gives schools a paltry 6-cents-per-meal increase. The good news is that the bill would make unhealthy a la carte and vending machine items obsolete and would make nutritional guidelines more stringent. All this is "mildly encouraging," says Millimet. But he notes that tougher guidelines won't solve the problem if schools couldn't even comply with the existing ones.
If you want to keep your kids at a healthy weight, here are a few tips:
• Feed them breakfast. Millimet's study does show that breakfast, whether provided by schools or not, goes a long way in combating the childhood-obesity problem. And it doesn't take much time as you might think to prepare healthy breakfasts your kids will love.
• Pack their lunch. The best way to stay on top of what your kids eat for lunch is to pack it for them. If you're under time pressure, try one of these tips from our Nickel Pincher for getting your kids in on the packing action. Invest in ecofriendly lunch containers that will keep their food safe and fresh.
• Monitor the lunch (on)line. Millimet says that at his daughters' elementary school, parents can load up prepaid cards that their children use in the lunch line, and later can check a website to see what their kids purchased. Programs like this may not be widespread, he says, but finding out if your child's school has one helps you stay on top of what they're buying. If nothing else, have lunch with your child at school and see firsthand what their choices are.
• Make it a family affair. One way to counteract any bad food lessons your kids are getting at school is to involve them in the meals they eat at home. Bring them food shopping and talk to them about choosing nutritious food. Start a vegetable garden, so they can experience where food really comes from and how good fresh vegetables taste. Give them healthy snacks that they can help prepare themselves. Plan healthy cooking parties for them and their friends. And schedule family dinners, away from the television, so nutritious meals are an enjoyable experience.
• Get involved. Every little change helps, even if it's as simple as getting your child's school to sell organic apples, rather than canned applesauce. For tips on effecting positive changes in the cafeteria, visit Renegade Lunch Lady Ann Cooper's Lunch Lessons website.