Analyst: Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of Education Studies
919-828-3876 • tstoops@johnlocke.org

Childhood Health

As childhood obesity rates continue to rise, the debate over the National School Lunch Program and the sale of junk food in and around public schools has intensified. While elected officials continue their well-intentioned efforts to promote healthy lifestyles, research suggests that new and stricter regulations will do little to make children healthier.

The Obama Administration spearheaded passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. This initiative is designed to combat childhood obesity by changing the nutrition requirements of school lunches. A January 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study suggests that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act improved the nutritional profile of school lunches but also produced a number of unintended consequences.

According to the GAO, the law multiplied costs, increased fruit and vegetable waste, created new menu planning problems, and decreased participation in the federal school lunch program. Because implementation of the program requirements is ongoing, the overall effect of the legislation on childhood health, if any, will not be known for some time. Public health advocates also contend that schools can curb obesity by banning the sale of junk food and soda. Their more radical proposals include taxes on unhealthy foods and beverages and zoning regulations that prohibit certain businesses from operating near schools.

Over the last five years, however, empirical studies have reached a near consensus — stricter laws and regulations imposed by government officials do not reduce childhood obesity rates in any significant way. Why?

The consumption of unhealthy foods and drinks is inelastic. In other words, taxing or regulating certain food and beverage items will not necessarily reduce their consumption very much. Consumers, particularly children, may simply shift their consumption preferences to other unhealthy, non-taxed foods and drinks. This problem raises the difficulty of defining which foods and drinks should be subject to taxes and regulations by state and federal governments.

For example, public school students often respond to bans on soda by purchasing different kinds of sugary drinks, such as juices and sports drinks, from school vending machines. Even schools that ban all sugar-sweetened beverages from campus will not significantly reduce students' consumption of unhealthy drinks. Kids can (and will) simply bring them from home.

Key Facts

Recommendations

  1. Federal, state, and local governments should not impose arbitrary taxes, regulations, or prohibitions on the consumption of certain foods and beverages. We should remain dependent on parents and guardians to instill values of healthy and active lifestyles in children.
  2. Public schools should ensure that all children participate in health and physical education activities several times a week. Additionally, public schools should invite all students to use sports and recreational facilities before school, after school, and on weekends.
  3. States should ask Congress to reassess changes to the federal school lunch program. Lawmakers should try to find ways to mitigate the unintended consequences produced by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.


©2014 by the John Locke Foundation