School nutrition programs improve kids’ health, study finds
(Conn.) About a month after the U.S. Department of Agriculture rolled back policies promoting healthier food options in schools, results from a new study show those same polices can have positive health outcomes for middle school-aged children.
Researchers from the Yale School of Public Health found that in schools with enhanced nutrition policies and programs, students had healthier body mass index trajectories over time, and by the end of the study, reported healthier behaviors than their peers in schools without those policies.
“These findings can guide future school and community interventions. Childhood obesity is a serious health threat, and schools are a vital way to reach children and their families to reduce risks and promote health,” lead author of the report, Jeannette Ickovics, said in a statement. “These findings strongly support previous administration policies that provided healthier food for all children in public schools.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in five students ages 6 to 19 was obese during the 2015-16 school year. Childhood obesity has long been linked to poor long-term physical and mental health outcomes, as well as problems with low self-esteem.
Specifically, being overweight or obese early can contribute to a range of chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, and depression that reduce productivity and shorten life expectancy.
Healthier school environments, meanwhile, have been shown to benefit students in numerous ways. For example, quality physical education predicts higher levels of physical activity in school. And school wellness policies that promote increased access to healthier foods and limit access to unhealthy foods have been linked to lower caloric intake and improved student diets.
Since 2004, all school districts participating in the federal meal programs have been required to create a committee of stakeholders and write a school wellness policy that set goals for physical and nutrition education, and set nutrition standards for meals and snacks served.
In 2010, the scope of school wellness policies was expanded by The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which, among other things, aimed to promote more physical activity and increase the amount of whole grains, fruits and vegetables served in school meal programs while lowering sugars, sodium and calorie intake.
The School Nutrition Association, among other critics, argued that the action would lead to increased costs, lower student participation and more food waste.
The Trump administration announced last month that it would cut some of those Obama-era nutrition policies–an action which also drew criticism from those who said the policies encouraged better habits, though, which would have positive long-term effects.
The Yale study appears to support those who opposed the rollback.
The five-year trial, conducted in conjunction with the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, followed nearly 600 students from 12 schools in urban New Haven districts. Students’ eating and activity habits were tracked from grades 5 through 8 through the 2014-15 school year.
Schools included in the study that had nutritional interventions ensured all school-based meals met federal nutritional criteria; provided nutritional newsletters for students and their families; developed school-wide campaigns to limit sugary drinks and encourage drinking more water; and limited the use of food or beverages as rewards for academic performance or good behavior.
Researchers found that throughout their middle school years, students enrolled in schools that prioritized good nutrition had healthier body mass index trajectories. Those enrolled in schools that received enhanced support to implement nutrition policies had an increase in BMI percentile of less than 1 percent, compared to those in schools without such support, who demonstrated increases of between 3 percent and 4 percent.
And in schools where physical activity policies alone were implemented, there was little to no impact on body mass index demonstrated. Researchers concluded that physical activity policies worked best in tandem with nutrition policies.
“This is some of the strongest evidence we have to date that nutrition education and promoting healthy eating behaviors in the classroom and cafeteria can have a meaningful impact on children’s health,” said Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center and one of the study’s lead authors. “These findings can inform how we approach federal wellness policy requirements and implementation in schools to help mitigate childhood obesity.”