December 20, 2010

The childhood obesity epidemic plaguing America has an unwitting accomplice – the school cafeteria.

According to new federally funded research by SMU economist Daniel L. Millimet, children who eat school lunches that are part of the federal government’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP) are more likely to become overweight.

Millimet.jpgProfessor Daniel Millimet

Through the NSLP, the federal government reimburses schools for a portion of school lunch costs. Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the federal lunch and breakfast programs, does require that meals meet certain nutritional standards, schools choose the specific foods and can serve individual food items a la carte that fall outside the scope of the guidelines.

“First, it is very difficult to plan healthy but inviting school lunches at a low price,” Millimet says. “Second, given the tight budgets faced by many school districts, funding from the sales of a la carte lunch items receives high priority.”

Ironically, the same research study found that children who eat both the federal-government sponsored breakfast and lunch fare better than other children. Specifically, those who eat both federal meals are less heavy than children who don’t eat either the federal breakfast or federal lunch. The researchers found they are also less heavy than children who eat only the federal lunch.

“There’s evidence that school lunches are less in compliance with federal guidelines than breakfasts,” he says. “And it’s possible that even if the school lunch is healthy, kids buying lunch are more likely to tack on extra items that are not healthy.”

Millimet, a professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Economics in Dedman College, co-authored the research with economists Rusty Tchernis of Georgia State University and Muna S. Hussain of Kuwait University.


Millimet and his colleagues analyzed data on 13,500 elementary school children. Photo courtesy of USDA.

The new study “School Nutrition Programs and the Incidence of Childhood Obesity” appears in the summer issue of The Journal of Human Resources. The research was funded by the USDA.

For the study, Millimet and his colleagues analyzed data on more than 13,500 elementary school students, following them from kindergarten into later elementary school.

“The fact that federally funded school lunches contribute to the childhood obesity epidemic is disconcerting, although not altogether surprising,” says Millimet, whose research looks at the economics of children, specifically topics related to schooling and health. “That said, it’s comforting to know that the U.S. Department of Agriculture takes the issue very seriously. The USDA sponsors not only my research, but that of others as well, to investigate the issues and possible solutions.”

Millimet says he was pleased that the findings were released about the same time as a media blitz by First Lady Michelle Obama and the USDA announcing their fight against childhood obesity. The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity report said that more than 30 percent of American children ages 2 to 19 are overweight or obese and recommends serving healthier foods in schools.

Millimet is conducting additional research that looks at the relationship among obesity, the federal Food Stamp Program and the federal school breakfast and lunch programs. Now in the second year of a two-year grant from the USDA, preliminary results show that the Food Stamp Program, alone and in combination with the School Breakfast and School Lunch programs, reduces obesity in children, Millimet says.
– Margaret Allen