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.