Food reformers savored their first big political win last year with the passage of the child nutrition bill. For two years, a diverse and sometimes unwieldy band of public-health, sustainable-agriculture, and education advocates had lobbied hard for a bill that would provide new funds for cash-strapped school lunch programs and require strict new nutrition standards on all foods sold in schools. Michelle Obama, who led the push for the bill’s passage, called it a groundbreaking piece of legislation that would “play an integral role in our efforts to combat childhood obesity.” Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, who has not always been an ardent supporter of the school lunch program, also applauded the measure, saying, “Now that this legislation is law, I look forward to giving schools the tools they need to combat both childhood hunger and obesity.”
Overhauling school food is an important task, one I have long supported. The National School Lunch Program is the country’s second largest program for feeding hungry citizens, spending $8 billion annually on meats, grains, and produce. And the USDA estimates that many school children get as much as 50 percent of their calories at school. Surely we can do better than breakfast tacos and milk packed with as much sugar per serving as Coca-Cola. But amid all the media attention to school-based obesity-prevention efforts, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that improved school nutrition alone is not nearly enough to reverse the appalling rates of childhood obesity in America, where one in three children is overweight or obese (PDF). That other 50 percent of kids’ caloric intake still needs to be addressed. The reasons school-food reform became a rallying point have more to do with political strategy than with the likelihood that school meals will fundamentally change children’s eating habits or help them lose weight. Simply put, it’s just easier to attack the way the government feeds kids than the way their parents do.
The strategizing began when President Obama took office. Food reformers at last had a leader who knew the price of arugula and, they hoped, would be sympathetic to their cause. But they needed a focused message. For years in the political wilderness, they had pushed for a grab-bag of policy reforms. Some food reformers wanted an organic garden on the White House lawn. (Check.) There were others who wanted a secretary of food. (Not yet.) Still other reformers wanted mandatory disclosure on all genetically modified food. (Definitely not yet.) The child nutrition bill, which is reauthorized every five years and includes funding for school feeding programs, was up for a vote, and it presented a seemingly agreeable way to introduce the benefits of good food to members of Congress. After all, who doesn’t want school kids to eat healthy food? And picking on the dour lunch lady is, politically, a lot more feasible than telling parents they’re doing a lousy job feeding their kids: Just look at how Sarah Palin reacted when she learned that cupcakes may soon be forbidden at school birthday parties in Pennsylvania. Imagine the frenzy if anyone even suggested meddling in what kids were fed at the family table.
Food reformers would, of course, disagree that it’s mostly a matter of political expediency, and they have all manner of statistics and studies to demonstrate the crucial role school meals play in a healthy diet. Thirty-four percent of the calories in an average school meal come from fat, and french fries and other potato products account for a disproportionate number of the vegetables on kids’ trays. Just this month, a report in the American Heart Journal seemed to suggest that just eating school lunch could make kids fat: The study of more than 1,000 sixth-graders in Michigan found that children who regularly ate school lunch were 29 percent more likely to be obese than those who brought lunch from home. Meanwhile, across the pond, where celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has long been agitating for healthy school meals, one study showed that roughly four in five children tried foods at school that they never would have touched at home. And so, in theory, the solution is obvious: If our nation’s lunch ladies would dish up from-scratch plates loaded with appetizing fruits and vegetables, American children would both weigh less and be more willing to eat other healthy foods. Spinach and quinoa for all!
And yet. Even if schools had the funds, the skilled staff, and the kitchens to produce such meals—three huge ifs, which could cost as much as three times our current spending, or $27 billion—it wouldn’t be enough to send the trend lines in the other direction. Because while the proponents of school-lunch reform trumpet the studies that bolster their case, there is equally compelling research (PDF) that says parents are the real shapers of children’s eating habits; kids learn what to eat at home. Frequent, sit-down, home-cooked family meals—with the television off and parents and children engaged in conversation about the day’s events, the food, etc.—are key to developing a healthy lifestyle. In addition to avoiding obesity and other diet-related problems, kids whose parents create this kind of kitchen-table environment tend to do better in school and are less likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol. On the flipside, parents who follow marketers’ cues and serve “kids’ food” (such as Dora the Explorer yogurt and all varieties of chicken nuggets) raise children who may be resistant to trying new foods that are not as intrinsically appealing as the high-sugar, high-fat alternatives they’ve been weaned on.
Schools can only do so much to compete with the $10 billion annual bombardment of food advertising and the steady diet of burgers, fries, pizza, and chicken nuggets those ads are pushing. Moreover, to make their numbers, schools must serve food that the kids—their customers—are willing to pay for. “The kids have had the fast food. And they have adjusted their appetites,” says Rhonda McCoy, the school food service director of West Virginia’s Cabell County. Last year, with the (sometimes unwelcome) assistance of Jamie Oliver, McCoy overhauled her entire menu, scrapping heat-and-serve entrees in favor of from-scratch versions of sloppy Joes and vegetarian pizza. But students continue to resist the healthier versions, and school cooks are resorting to tricks to hide healthier ingredients, such as beans (once a staple of the Appalachian diet) in the new dishes.
All this is not to say that reforming school lunch doesn’t matter. It does, and advocates should continue to fight for the necessary resources to make genuine improvements in school nutrition. But food reformers need to make as strong a case for changing what kids eat outside school as what they do inside the cafeteria. Children are not 29 percent more likely to be obese because they eat school lunch, as that American Heart Journal study might seem to indicate. Instead, the children who eat school lunch—specifically, the ones who are most reliant on school meals—also are our poorest children: the ones without access to fresh produce in their neighborhoods, without parks and playgrounds to run around in, and, often, without parents who value good, healthy food.
The good news is that the Obama administration acknowledges the importance of addressing these poverty-related causes of childhood obesity. Last May, the White House unveiled a task force report on childhood obesity that outlined five strategies to reverse the epidemic. Improving school food was one, but so were better prenatal care, improving access to healthy foods by eliminating food deserts, increasing children’s physical activity, and empowering parents to make better decisions about what they feed their kids.
That last recommendation is where food reformers can play a key role. They can help get out the message that fast and cheap and easy are not the measures by which food should be judged. They can counter the message from right-wingers that anyone who champions healthy food is elitist and anyone who listens is a victim of the nanny state. This education effort is the most important piece of the food-reform puzzle. And if advocates can succeed on this front, their victory will not be just for chubby children but for everyone.