How School Lunch Guidelines Have Lowered Child Obesity Rates

About one in five children younger than 19 are obese, and it is more prevalent among children from low- and middle-income families, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 addressed childhood obesity by revamping the breakfast and lunch programs in schools to make them align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

A new study in JAMA Pediatrics sought to find out if the changes to school food offerings resulted in lowered obesity rates. The study compared annual changes in the body mass index (BMI) of students in the years before and after the law took full effect in the 2016-2017 school year. Although the researchers found a flat trend in BMI before the 2016-2017 school year, students had a slight decline in BMI in the years after the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act took effect. In fact, among children between 12 and 18, BMI had been increasing before 2016, but the trend reversed after the 2016-2017 school year.

Efforts to improve nutrition in children

Nutrition experts told U.S. News & World Report to interpret these results with caution because some of the children involved in the study might not have been enrolled in the school meals programs. The study noted in its limitations that BMI isn't a perfect measure of obesity since it doesn't consider lean body mass. They also didn't take into account measures of physical activity. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Acts, on the other hand, encouraged wellness policies that included physical activity.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced more changes to school meals, such as limiting added sugars, reducing sodium, and emphasizing whole grains. These changes will be gradual over several years. Plus, the USDA is also recognizing school districts that have created effective strategies for healthful eating and making them role models for school districts across the country. To help those school districts in rural communities, the USDA is awarding federal grants to help them improve the nutritional value of their school meals.