Last week, the Daily Caller published a piece decrying Michelle Obama’s push to improve the nutrition of government-funded school meals across the country. Based off of a recent study out of Virginia Tech, which found that children who are most likely to be overweight also tend to be those that participate in school meal programs, the Daily Caller concluded that “First lady Michelle Obama’s school lunch program is making the poorer children it’s supposed to help more likely to become overweight.”
There’s just one problem: The data used in the Virginia Tech study, which was funded in part by the USDA, ends in 2007 — five years before the first round of new school lunch standards went into place, three years before Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, and two years before Barack Obama was officially sworn is as president.
In short, the data from the Virginia Tech study has absolutely nothing to do with Michelle Obama’s school meals program — and actually shows how much reform for school nutrition was needed.
“We found that the longer children were in the programs, the higher their risk of being overweight,” Wen You, associate professor of agricultural and applied economics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech and co-author of the study, said in a press release. “The question now is what to do in order to not just fill bellies, but make sure those children consume healthy and nutritious food — or at least not contribute to the obesity epidemic.”
“The entire motivation for updating the standards was concern that meals were not as healthy as the should be, and concern with childhood obesity.”
The Daily Caller piece does mention that some of the data used in the Virginia Tech study predates the updated school meal standards by a few years (in fact, all of the data comes from between 1998 and 2007, well before the policies lobbied for by Michelle Obama went into effect). But the strange thing about conservative media outlets seizing onto the Virginia Tech study, according to Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts, is that the study shows just how important it was for the federal government to revamp and improve nutrition for kids.
Childhood obesity has more than doubled in the past 30 years. And according to the Virginia Tech study, the children most at risk of suffering from childhood obesity are those who get between half and one-third of their meals from school meal programs — which means these programs are an important step in fighting childhood obesity.
“What this data really tells us is yes, there was reason to be concerned,” Black said. “School meals are incredibly important to children’s health, and it made good sense to try and improve them. The entire motivation for updating the standards was concern that meals were not as healthy as the should be, and concern with childhood obesity.”
More than 30 million children across the country participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), while around 14 million students participate in the School Breakfast Program (SBP). In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), which was the first update to the NSLP in more than 30 years. It directed the USDA to set new standards for food sold in school lunches, as well as food served in federally-funded meal programs.
After two years, the USDA released a new set of science-based standards for school meals, mandating that those meals include more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains than their predecessors, while cutting the allowable amount of sodium, sugar, and fat. The bill also set up a system of increased accountability for schools, requiring an audit every three years to make sure schools were complying with the standards (a 2007 audit found that only 20 percent of schools were in compliance with the federal guidelines for fat content).
In 2012, schools across the country began phasing in the first round of standards. And thus far, they appear to be working. According to a 2015 report looking at public elementary schools between the 2006–2007 and 2013–2014 school years, more schools are now offering a wider assortment of healthy food, like fruits and vegetables, while cutting back on unhealthy food, like fried potatoes or pizza. A University of Michigan study from 2015 came to similar conclusions, finding that healthy foods like nonfat milk, fruits, and vegetables were more widely available in middle and high schools in 2013 than they were in 2011.
Since schools began adopting the new rules, however, Republican lawmakers and industry groups have sought to roll back the standards, arguing that they are too expensive and encourage kids to waste food. In 2015, Congress missed the first deadline to reauthorize the standards. This year, Congress has made moves to reauthorize the bill, but some lawmakers have also tried to weaken key provisions, like only providing free lunches and after-school meals to school districts where at least 60 percent of students live near or at the poverty line (the original bill only required 40 percent of students to live at or near the poverty line).
According to Black, rolling back the standards created in 2010 would do little to help students gain access to the kind of healthy and nutritious food recommended in the Virginia Tech study.
“If there is one take home from this study, it’s that the changes made as a result of the 2010 bill were important and necessary,” Black said. “We would look to better outcomes as a result of these impressive changes that have been made in schools across the country.”