A new study published in Pediatrics suggests there could be a link between more stringent laws limiting junk food to students at school and children being at healthier weights, boosting the argument that schools can play a role in the fight against childhood obesity.
It’s important to keep in mind that the national study’s measured effect was relatively small, and that it’s not definitive evidence that school bans on junk food are working. But it’s enough to boost confidence among advocates of such policies.
I wrote recently about the question of how much responsibility for addressing childhood obesity should rest with schools, and the American Medical Association’s proposal for a tax on sugary soft drinks that would help pay for educational programs on health and nutrition. That proposal has drawn heat from educators who say the school day is already too crowded, and that families are ultimately responsible for their children’s weight. But even if you believe schools are straying too far from their academic mission by taking on such issues, it’s hard to ignore that there’s an impact on learning when children are not healthy.
As for whether the junk food bans will show much of a measurable effect on health outcomes, Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity specialist at Harvard Medical School and Boston’s Children’s Hospital, told the Associated Press “what are the downsides of improving the food environment for children today? You can’t get much worse than it already is.”
This new study is getting plenty of coverage (along with the AP, see Time, and the New York Times). But my favorite take so far comes from Lindsay Abrams, an editorial fellow for The Atlantic’s Health Channel. Hers is the first article I’ve seen on this issue that comes from the point of view of someone who is actually a member of the generation the more rigorous rules were intended to protect.
Abrams says that when she was in middle school a decade ago, she wrote an editorial for her school newspaper opposing the campus vending machines – which were removed by the administration soon after. That result didn’t exactly make her popular, and I have to admire her willingness to stand her ground. School districts across the country have enacted similar bans, a move that’s looking wiser in the light of the new study’s findings.
But as Abrams writes now, “Schools shouldn’t just be forcing healthier foods on students. The partially-supervised years of middle school are the perfect time to expose them to more options while simultaneously teaching them to make better choices.”
Laying a healthier foundation in middle school could mean students enter high school in better shape physically, Abrams argues, and more prepared to make smart food choices when they are likely to have more direct control over what they eat.
The larger question is whether students will continue to practice better eating habits when they leave the school setting. That might be the trickiest part of this equation. Schools that simply ban junk food don’t do much more than drive up the sales during the early morning and late-afternoon hours at the minimarts near campus. When those junk food bans are part of a well-structured initiative that encourages entire families, and not just students, to live healthier, I’d guess that the odds of making a difference would have to improve.