Science Policy For All

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Combating Childhood Obesity: Taking Down Competitive Foods

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By A.Blackler on May 26, 2011 8:06 PM


Rates of obesity have been increasing for years and have now reached epidemic proportions in the United States, among children and adults.  Currently 1 in 3 children are considered either overweight or obese.   While many factors and lifestyle changes have contributed to the obesity problem over the decades, one that has had a noticeable impact on childhood obesity is the ubiquitous presence of competitive foods in schools today.

What is a competitive food?  Competitive foods are foods sold at school that are not part of the standard cafeteria lunch line, such as vending machines, the ‘a-la-cart’ line, and booths that sell commercially branded food (usually fast-food and pizza chains).  The school cafeteria food is part of the National School Lunch Program and regulated for nutritional content by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  However, competitive foods are not nationally regulated and are generally high in calories, sugar and fat and low in nutrients.

How much damage can a little junk food do to a child’s health?  Consider this; consuming an extra 200 calories a day for a year will add up to 20 extra pounds gained that year.  That’s the equivalent of a single 20-ounce bottle of Coke a day.  A daily trip to the school vending machine or a cookie from the a-la-cart line can quickly add up to a lot of extra pounds.

Studies have shown that increased availability of low-nutrient competitive foods leads to a decrease in consumption of fruits, vegetables and milk.  When faced with a choice between a cookie and an apple, most children will (unsurprisingly) choose the cookie.  But when the cookie is removed from the equation, children will happily eat the apple.

In 2010, the Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act was signed into law as part of the Affordable Care Act.  This act not only extensively retools USDA school nutritional standards (the new requirements include maximum calories and minimum percentages of whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables per meal), but also requires any competitive food sold in school to meet these standards.

As these new USDA requirements are phased in, hopefully restricting access to junk food at school will have a noticeable impact, not just on body weight, but also on classroom attentiveness and chronic medical conditions such as diabetes and high cholesterol (conditions previously seen as adult issues).

Will taking junk food out of schools solve the child obesity epidemic?  My guess is no.  This is a battle our society is going to be fighting for a long time and will require a multifaceted approach of education, increasing physical activity and working with parents and communities to improve overall childhood nutrition and health.  Is this a significant step in the right direction?  Yes, definitely!  The next generation deserves to eat better than we did growing up, not worse.


Written by sciencepolicyforall

May 26, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Posted in Essays

Tagged with , ,

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