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New Study Says School Food May Make Kids Fatter

A new study from the University of Michigan finds that kids who eat the food served in schools are more likely to be overweight or obese than peers who bring lunch from home, and also are more likely to suffer from high levels of "bad" cholesterol.

The study, which examined the eating habits of some 1,300 Michigan sixth-graders over a three-year period, found that children who get their food at school eat more fat, drink more sugary sodas, and consume far fewer fruits and vegetables. The findings, presented last week at the American College of Cardiology annual scientific session, are said to be the first to assess the impact of school food on children's eating behaviors and overall health.

Specifically, 38.8 percent of students who routinely eat school lunch were found to be overweight or obese, compared to 24.4 percent of kids who brought their own food from home. The children consuming school food were twice as likely to drink sodas, and a measly 16.3 percent reported eating fruits and vegetables on a regular basis, compared to 91.2 percent of the kids who got homemade food.

"This study confirms the current and escalating national concern with children's health, and underscores the need to educate children about how to make healthy eating and lifestyle choices early on," said Elizabeth Jackson, M.D., MPH, assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Health System, in a release put out by the university. "Although this study doesn't provide specific information on nutrient content of school lunches, it suggests there is a real opportunity to promote healthy behaviors and eating habits within the school environment. This is where kids spend a majority of their time."

It would be dangerous to read too much into a study that is based solely on student questionnaires and suggests correlations, not cause and effect, between self-reported eating habits and specific health issues. For instance, it could be that children who tend to be overweight or obese must eat the food served at school because they get it free courtesy of the federally-subsidized school lunch program. The researchers acknowledge that there could be a correlation "between socioeconomic status and heart health in children of low-income families who take advantage of free school meal programs."

The findings, based on what students reported about their eating habits during the entire day, not just at school, certainly suggest a strong link between what kids learn about food at home and the kinds of food they choose at school. But even parents who pack "healthful" lunches can never be sure what their children are actually eating, the researchers report, since most children in public schools are exposed to "competitive" foods -- those sold outside the regular lunch line -- that encompass all kinds of junk food, as well as the stuff sold in vending machines.

What's more, only 7 percent of school food operations fully comply with the nutrtional standards laid down by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the federal meals program. During the week I spent recently in the kitchen at my daughter's school here in the District of Columbia, it was clear that schools trying to feed kids on a budget rely heavily on industrially-processed convenience foods laced with additives and sugar. Fresh vegetables are a rarity.