Kids at Los Angeles Elementary School eating free lunches last summer. (Brian van der Brug/LA Times )
When the National School Lunch Program began in 1946, the idea was to get nutritious food into the stomachs of malnourished children from low-income families. Ironic, then, that these days the school lunch program is being scrutinized for its role in contributing to the growing problem of childhood obesity in America.
The latest report was published online this week by the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. It concludes that girls who participate in the National School Lunch Program gain weight at a faster clip than other girls from low-income families who do not get the subsidized lunches (and sometimes breakfasts) at school.
According to background information in the study, about 36% of kids ages 6 to 11 are overweight and 20% are obese. That can lead to lifelong problems, including an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and many kinds of cancer. For girls, extra weight can also mean earlier onset of puberty, which also increases the risk of depression, eating disorders, breast cancer and other health problems.
Studies have found that kids who are part of the school lunch program get more protein, vitamins and minerals in their diets and eat fewer foods with added sugar. However, studies have also found that these kids also consume more dietary fat and more calories overall. In addition, some studies have found that kids on the program weigh more than their peers.
RELATED: A new map of childhood obesity in the U.S.
So a trio of researchers from Penn State University looked at data on 574 girls and 566 boys across the country who enrolled in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study as kindergarteners in 1998. Their weights and heights – the information needed to compute body mass index – was assessed in kindergarten and in first, third, fifth and eighth grades. Nearly half of the kids were in the school lunch program at some point during the study, and 35% of them were on it the entire time.
The researchers found that the average BMI for low-income girls was the same for those who had gotten the school lunches and those who didn’t. However, the girls on the school lunch program gained weight faster, and the difference was statistically significant.
Participation in the school lunch program didn’t affect the average BMI or rate of weight gain for boys, the researchers found.
The team noted that unlike prior studies, they may not have found a difference in average BMI because they compared children in the school lunch program only with children who didn’t participate but were also from low-income families, making them more likely to eat unhealthy fast food and less likely to exercise. Earlier studies that did see a difference compared the school lunch kids against all school-age children from all income levels.
The latest study was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health. A summary of the study is online here.
RELATED: Three factors to fight childhood obesity