Fewer kids are buying lunch at school, despite the first lady’s best efforts. Since the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010, Michelle Obama’s premiere program to fight childhood obesity, participation in the school lunch program has declined by nearly 4 percent. Some schools have lost revenue due to the decline in participation and are choosing to opt out of the program entirely. With the HHFKA scheduled for reauthorization this month, it’s worth asking: Is the program is worth its $15 billion costs or is there is a better option?
The HHFKA program provides funding for school meals that comply with federal nutritional standards. And therein lies the problem. The program’s one-size-fits-all nutritional standards, which are applied to each day’s meals, make it difficult for schools to create appetizing meals kids actually want to eat.
Decreasing childhood obesity is a laudable goal. It defies a simple solution, but The HHFKA attempts to address the issue by mandating that schools meals align with government nutritional recommendations to qualify for subsidies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of schools in the nation complying with federal nutrition standards has significantly increased, as they serve more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, lower-fat dairy, and lean protein, while reducing sodium and sugar content. This sounds like great progress, but it doesn’t tell us if kids are actually eating healthier as a result.
Overall, childhood obesity has remained fairly stable between 2008 and 2012, though not evenly across all age groups. Obesity among children between two and five years old declined by 3.7 percent from 2010 to 2012, while it increased by 2.1 percent among kids between 12 and 19 years old. However, these trends were well underway before the implementation of the HHFKA. What does this mean? It means obesity is an immensely complicated and long-term condition that takes years and potentially hundreds of genetic and environmental factors to manifest. A broad-brush approach will not address it.