School food is not the problem.

Sep 10, 2012

Schools, public and private, are easy scapegoats for a lot of social ills. Experience has taught me that some complaints are certainly warranted and need attention from school folks. However, the accusation that school food causes obesity is misplaced. This misnomer needs to be revisited and corrected, if such myths can be changed.

Let’s just start with this. I’m a big guy. Some folks might call me fat. Well, I have not attended public school for years. My weight problems have nothing to do with foods that are available in schools. Finally, we have some sound research that supports what most of us have known for years. Many of us were hesitant to say something because it would be unpopular. Overweight children (and adults) are not overweight because they ate at school.

Before we get to the long overdue research, let’s do some common-sense thinking. If we eat three meals a day, that is 1,095 meals a year, excluding leap-year. That means that most children have eaten 5,475 meals before they enter kindergarten. This does not include snacks. It is fairly safe to say that doing something over 5,000 times establishes a pattern, habit or preference in behavior. In this case, we are talking about an eating and food preference pattern … before children ever enter kindergarten.

Now let’s look at school meals. The school year in North Carolina has lasted 180 days for many years. Recently, some school years have lasted as long as 185 days. If we take the 1,095 meals we average each year and subtract 185 school lunches, 910 meals are not eaten at school each year. Another way to look at this is 83 percent of a student’s meals are eaten away from school. A small percentage of students eat breakfast and lunch at school. Even if a student eats breakfast and lunch at school (every single day), two-thirds of the individual’s meals are eaten away from school.

Research published in the January issue of Sociology of Education confirms that school food does not cause obesity. The lead author of the study, Professor Jennifer Van Hook, had this to say, “We were really surprised by that result and, in fact, we held back from publishing our study for roughly two years because we kept looking for a connection that just wasn't there.”

The study relies on data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, kindergarten class of 1998-99, which follows a nationally representative sample of students from the fall of kindergarten through the spring of eighth grade.

School food doesn’t cause obesity. I’m waiting for the study that shows school food is healthier than what students eat away from home. A few folks may have really healthy diets away from school. However, for many students, the best meal of the day occurs at school.

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