School Lunches and Childhood Obesity

Rosa’s post last week inspired me to delve further into the driving factors of childhood obesity, specifically how school lunches might be affecting the eating habits of children in the United States.

School lunches in the United States have long been criticized for being unhealthy by students and parents. During the past 20 years, the prevalence of overweight children and adolescents has more than doubled in the United States (Field et al. 2005). In public schools, children between kindergarten to twelfth grade have been served food like pizza, chicken tenders, cheese burgers, and french fries on a regular basis – I’m sure anyone who attended public school remembers that literally no one even enjoyed this food. However, eating this junk at school for years and years can still sway people’s palates towards a preference for greasy, fatty foods. Unhealthy eating habits can lead to conditions and diseases that are associated with being overweight or obese. In addition, people that are overweight during childhood are more likely to be overweight and hypertensive in adulthood.

Michelle Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act aims to provide healthier school lunches by reducing portion sizes and serving more nutritious food (Obama 2012). According to Schanzenbach, the school lunch program’s mission was historically created to combat hunger (2009). However, students across the United States have been complaining about the changes to school menus– it seems that many schools have understood Michelle Obama’s new changes as simply reducing portion sizes while not changing the contents of the lunches. Some high school and middle school students have tweeted pictures of lunches that still look unhealthy, but are smaller in portions (Jacobs, 2014). However, there is evidence that students are simply not eating the food that schools provide them. In an ABC report uploaded to Youtube on September 27, 2012, the correspondent stated that school food waste has gone up 50% since the new policy has taken over. Students in the video stated that they do not like the new food because “it’s too healthy almost” and that the healthy food tastes too bland. However, the same students that are throwing away high quantities of food are complaining about school food “not filling them up”, even though high schoolers should be receiving 850 calories in school lunches under the new policy. Assuming that a person only needs 2000-2500 calories a day, a lunch of 850 calories provides a student with 34% to 42.5% of their daily caloric intake. This should technically be enough for a person if they also eat a balanced breakfast and dinner. Tom Vilsack, the US Secretary of Agriculture, says that elementary schoolers are much more receptive to the changes than high schoolers, which is promising. Many states are disappointed by these changes –  Districts in California, New York, and Texas have dropped the program because their students were not eating the healthier options and were subsequently losing money on these lunches. However, the new federal school lunches are just over a year old and adjustments may still need to be ironed out.

Although some schools are opposing Obama’s changes, other schools are not only encouraging healthy, cooked meals, but creating farming programs that allow kids to better appreciate the food they eat. Grassroots organizations like Wellness in the Schools are working to bring cooked from scratch, healthy meals to over 50 schools in Kentucky, Florida, and New York. They serve kids many plant-based foods like black bean burgers, butternut squash and sweet potato casserole, and vegetarian chili (Kennedy and Singh 2010).

A school lunch salad entree option featuring low-sodium chicken, a whole-grain roll, fresh red peppers, and cilantro dressing is assembled in a lunch basket at Mirror Lake Elementary School in Federal Way, Wash., south of Seattle. –Ted S. Warren/AP

A school lunch salad entree option featuring low-sodium chicken, a whole-grain roll, fresh red peppers, and cilantro dressing is assembled in a lunch basket at Mirror Lake Elementary School in Federal Way, Wash., south of Seattle. –Ted S. Warren/AP

Countries across the world are dealing with increased obesity rates. Even countries, like Japan, that are often praised for having culturally healthy foods are seeing more and more overweight children. The number of overweight children in Japan has doubled in 25 years, but they have created a solution that has brought them down to the lowest number of overweight citizens in the developed world (Yoshinaga, 2010). Now, Japanese school lunches are planned by a nutritionist and include locally grown ingredients such as rice, vegetables, soups, and fish (Fisher, 2013). Currently, no other country has successfully implemented a nation-wide system of made-from-scratch, locally grown meals for classrooms. Another aspect that might be affecting Japan’s success in combatting childhood obesity is that they offer students only one meal choice a day. If they don’t eat their food, they will have nothing else to eat for the rest of the day because Japanese schools do not have vending machines. However, school lunches in Japan are often reviewed as tasty anyway, so food waste is fairly low (Fisher, 2013). The United States could learn from this by having lunches that are not only healthy, but tasty (we all know our school lunches were gross). Currently, each SchoolFood meal in the United States costs $2.43, but after subtracting the cost of milk and overhead, only $0.90 is left for actual food. The milk industry has been profiting off of school lunches for over 50 years because of the National School Lunch Program. In fact, the United States spends more on milk and dairy products than any other food item within the program (Kennedy and Singh 2010). If milk was not required for school lunches, more money could be spent on replacing the unhealthy, processed foods that are currently served with fresh, nutritious foods. Milk is gross anyway.

The United States has been making efforts to provide students with healthier food and exercise choices at a young age in the hopes of producing more health conscious adults in the future. Michelle Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids campaign is generally on the right track, but definitely needs to be re-examined. However, the United States needs to improve many aspects of the new school lunch program in order to be successful. Taking hints from other, more successful countries, or even looking towards existing programs within the United States could help bring down the childhood obesity rate. It is important to provide children with healthy food, so they can encourage and produce future generations that are not only healthy, but happy and productive.

– Sarah Kim


ABC News. Uproar Over School Lunches United States: Youtube. 2012.

Field, A., Cook, N., & Gillman, M. Weight Status in Childhood as a Predictor of Becoming Overweight or Hypertensive in Early Adulthood. National Institute of Health, 13, 163-169.

Fisher, M. “How Japan’s Revolutionary School Lunches Helped Slow the Rise of Child Obesity.” The Washington Post [District of Columbia] 28 Jan. 2013.

Jacobs, P.. “Students Are Tweeting Awful Photos Of School Lunches To Blame Michelle Obama For New ‘Healthier’ Meals.” Business Insider 8 Apr. 2014: n. pag. Web.

Kennedy, M and I. Singh. “The Roots of School Food.” What’s for Lunch? N.p., 2010. Web. 12 May 2014. <;.

Obama, Michelle. Childhood Obesity. February 1, 2012, 8(1): 1-1.

Schanzenbach, D. Do School Lunches Contribute to Childhood Obesity?. Journal of Human Resources44, 684-709

Yoshinaga, M., Tomoko I., Yuji T., Daisuke H., Hitomi H., Hideto T., and Katsuro K. “Prevalence of Childhood Obesity from 1978 to 2007 in Japan.” Pediatrics International 52 (2010): 213-17.


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