I’ve received great feedback on my last couple blogs (thank you to everyone who shared them!) The person whose opinion I value most, however, told me, “Your recent posts have been a little negative. Maybe it’s time to write a positive one. Write about birds chirping or something.” OK, she didn’t suggest birds chirping. But she’s right about needing a happier topic – fortunately, the UConn Rudd Center came to my rescue.
Led by Dr. Marlene Schwartz, Director of the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, a team of researchers published very promising evidence on the impact of healthy changes to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Briefly, they found higher fruit consumption among students and less waste over time after the USDA required healthier nutrition standards for school lunches. You can read more about the results in the Rudd Center press release, The New York Times, or the full study.
Although it’s only 1 study in 1 district (New Haven, CT), well-executed studies like this are crucial. People demand evidence-based policy, but evidence doesn’t happen overnight. Research cycles are longer than election cycles. NSLP changes were first implemented in 2012 and, within 2 years, Republicans in Congress were trying to repeal them.
My next statement will seem obvious to most, but I know some very intelligent people who seem unable to grasp it: You can’t do a 50-year randomized, controlled trial in 2 years. That’s why studies like this are huge. It’s remarkable that Dr. Schwartz and colleagues were able to collect data on students’ lunch consumption, using objective data, before and after NSLP changes, and execute the study in 3 years.
Predictably, though, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) didn’t like the results. According to The New York Times, the SNA simply criticized the study for its limitations.
Sometimes I think current SNA leaders are the most pessimistic people on earth. If healthier school lunch standards were found to increase fruit and vegetable consumption, reduce obesity, improve academic achievement, make students happier, cure cancer, eliminate poverty, bring worldwide peace and prosperity, and make everyone see that the dress IS blue and black, I think SNA leaders would still find a way to be unhappy about it. I understand they have legitimate concerns about the cost and feasibility of healthier meals.
But any sensible person would react to the Rudd Center study by saying:
“That’s great! We’re happy to hear New Haven students are eating healthier foods. Not every district has had the same success, but maybe we can learn something from New Haven’s success so that students everywhere are healthier.”
That would be a reasonable response. A reasonable, unbiased, non-Big Food-funded response. Hey, a guy can dream.
Is SNA allergic to any good news?
Pouring cold water on the Rudd Center study was only the beginning of the SNA’s pessimistic week. The organization recently requested more funding from Congress to support school meal programs, which sounded like a step in the right direction. Bettina Elias Siegel wisely predicted at the time, however, that it may simply be an empty gesture. As Bettina wrote last week on The Lunch Tray, Helena Bottemiller Evich reported on Politico Pro that the SNA is speaking as though they’re already waving the white flag on getting more funding. They’ll keep pushing for less healthy standards instead.
To reiterate what I wrote last summer, I’m entirely sympathetic to challenges faced by school food service directors – I just wish SNA leaders would discuss student health for once. For those not keeping score at home, researchers at Harvard, the Rudd Center, and the University of Illinois-Chicago have now published evidence that healthier school lunch standards were associated with:
- Lower disparities in obesity
- Lower disparities in fruit/vegetable consumption
- Positive reaction to new school lunches among students
- Higher fruit/vegetable consumption in low-income school districts in Massachusetts and New Haven
- Lower or unchanged levels of food waste in both Massachusetts and New Haven
No study was perfect because no study on earth is perfect. Collectively, though, the studies covered nearly every base:
- 5 independent samples – some national and some local
- Evaluations of federal standards and state standards
- Analyses of weight status, diet, food waste, NSLP participation, and student response
- Student data, administrator data, and objectively measured data
- Different study designs with different comparison groups
These studies have two things in common: 1) they all reported positive results, and 2) the SNA blew off each and every one of them.
Thank you to Dr. Schwartz and her colleagues for giving me some good news to chat about this week. I only wish SNA could be happy about student health, too.
(Image Source: Flickr/U.S. Department of Agriculture (photo by Lance Cheung) and Pascal (pasukaru76) under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 )
I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health, where I specialize in childhood obesity policy research and systems science. This is my personal blog; any views or opinions expressed do not represent the University of Texas (or anyone else with power.)
My research has been featured in the New York Times, NPR, CNN, Wall Street Journal, and several other media outlets. You can follow me on Twitter at @DanTaber47, where I often tweet about obesity news, school nutrition, public transit, systems science, and occasionally random topics like Seattle sports, marathon training, or my latest obscure vacation destination.