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School nutrition programs fail at making students healthy; succeed at making them sad

November 11, 2008
no cupcake for you!

no cupcake for you!

Despite the strict new nutrition regulations in many school districts–which often result in bans on bake sales and birthday cake–school food policies may not have any particular effect on students’ eating habits. A (small, quasi-experimental, nonrandomized) study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that reducing the availability of sodas did not meaningfully reduce soda consumption among students. This is supported by data which suggest that childhood weight increases at a faster rate during the summer. None of this is surprising, for two reasons: one, children only spend seven of their twenty-four hours in school and most only consume one meal there; and two, real food is expensive.

When Christopher Greenslate and Kerri Leonard tried to live on a food budget of a dollar a day (the average American eats $7 of food a day, but the daily food-stamp allowance is only a few dollars), they found themselves unable to afford fresh fruits and vegetables of any kind–and seemed only to survive because of their ability to make their own bread and tortillas, a skill that’s losing ground by the day. Furthermore, there’s this:

Last year, Dr. Drewnowski led a study, published in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association, comparing the prices of 370 foods sold at supermarkets in the Seattle area. The study showed that “energy dense” junk foods, which pack the most calories and fewest nutrients per gram, were far less expensive than nutrient-rich, lower-calorie foods like fruits and vegetables. The prices of the most healthful foods surged 19.5 percent over the two-year study period, while the junk food prices dropped 1.8 percent. [NYTimes]

This is all the more reason for schools to cut soda and junk food from their vending machines and cafeterias–and replace them with water and fruit. Making it harder to get a Coke isn’t really helpful if students turn around and buy Gatorade or drink nothing at all. There have to be worthwhile alternatives. And this way, even if their eating habits aren’t changed substantially, at least you got some baby carrots into ’em.

HOWEVER: banning bake sales and birthday cake isn’t the answer, either. Fundraisers in particular should be exciting, and what’s more exciting than a brownie, particularly at a school where your only dessert options are nature’s candy? It also sends the message that under no circumstances are refined sugars acceptable, EVER. This makes said sugars way sexier (you say I can’t touch that red button, ay?) and also makes that whole “moderation” lesson much more difficult to learn. One glass of wine does not a raging  alcoholic make, nor a pumpkin-shaped cookie a 600-pound 10-year-old who can’t leave his bed.

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