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 in our public schools, research suggests that passing new and stricter regulations will do little to make children healthier.
The Obama administration spearheaded passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010. This initiative is designed to combat childhood obesity by changing the nutrition requirements of school lunches.
As expected, the law produced a number of undesirable unintended consequences. A January 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that 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. Nevertheless, there have been no discernible short-term benefits. According to a May 2016 study published by the academic journal Obesity, there have been no statistically significant decreases in childhood obesity since the 2011-12 school year.
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 research 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 consumption of them by very much. Consumers, particularly children, simply shift their consumption preferences to other unhealthy, nontaxed foods and beverages. 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. Yet 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.
- A study from the January 2012 issue of Sociology of Education examined junk food consumption and weight changes in nearly 20,000 public middle-school students. Penn State University researchers found that the percentage of overweight or obese students did not rise in concert with the increased availability of unhealthy foods and snacks. In fact, the percentage of overweight and obese students decreased slightly as the availability of junk food increased.
- In 2011, The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine published a study that sought to find a link between obesity and beverage consumption in schools. It concluded that soda bans in middle schools did not significantly reduce students’ consumption of sugary drinks.
- Researchers have yet to establish a causal association between health outcomes and restaurant zoning restrictions. For example, a 2011 study published in BMC Public Health found no relationship between overweight or obese children and the proximity of fast food restaurants and supermarkets to their schools.
- A study in the September 2008 issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine hypothesized that there was a relationship between obesity-related eating behaviors and the presence of snack and soda machines in schools. To their surprise, they found little relationship between them.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.