School meals are essential to kids' health
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Seven million. Fifteen million. Thirty million.

These are the total number of participants, respectively, served by the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program. Collectively, these federal nutrition programs help ensure that children and families nationwide--especially those in low-income communities--have greater access to healthy foods and enough to eat.  

This week, we received the latest evidence that WIC provides young children with a foundation for lifelong health. The new data, reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in JAMA. show that overall obesity rates among children participating in WIC declined from 15.9 percent in 2010 to 13.9 percent in 2016. In addition to the overall decline, statistically significant obesity rate decreases were reported among all racial and ethnic subgroups--including those whose obesity rates are higher than average, such as Hispanics (19.3 percent in 2010; 16.4 percent in 2016) and blacks (12.7 percent in 2010; 11.4 percent in 2016).

Given that WIC serves nearly half of all infants born in the United States, many of whom are at higher risk for obesity, the continued decline in obesity rates among the WIC population is encouraging. These new data reinforce the positive impact WIC has on both women and children, from improving access to prenatal care to supporting early cognitive development. Recent updates to the nutrition content of the WIC food package--which the CDC cites as a possible reason for the decline in obesity rates among children participating in WIC--have led to stores stocking healthier options and families buying healthier foods.

The takeaway is clear: all eligible families should be able to participate in and benefit from this program.

Similar good news abounds with respect to school meals programs. In 2012, updated nutrition standards for school meals took effect for the first time in more than 15 years. Those standards ensure children received meals with more fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and whole grains, while limiting amounts of saturated fat and sodium.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released the School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study, “the first nationally representative, comprehensive assessment of the school meal programs” since the updated nutrition standards took effect. The study, which collected data from more than 1,200 schools nationwide, concluded that “updated nutrition standards for school meals have had a positive and significant influence on nutrition quality.”

Specifically, USDA found that:

  • School meals are much healthier. The nutritional quality of school lunches and breakfasts increased by 41 percent and 44 percent, respectively, between school years 2009-10 and 2014-15.
  • Schools are complying with the updated standards. More than 80 percent of daily lunch menus meet the daily National School Lunch Program meal pattern requirements.
  • Student participation rates are associated with healthier meals. Rates of student participation in school lunch programs are considerably higher in schools that offer healthier meals.
  • The amount of food students throw away has not increased since the healthier standards took effect. “Plate waste” is also lower in schools that give students choices in food items, such as a variety of whole fruits.

Despite this progress, obesity continues to threaten our nation’s health, health care system, economy and future. More than 18 percent of youth ages 2 to 19 had obesity in 2015-16, the highest rate recorded by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). And disparities persist: Black youth and Hispanic youth had significantly higher obesity rates—22.2 percent and 20.6 percent, respectively—compared to white youth at 12.5 percent and Asian youth at 6.4 percent.

WIC and schools meals programs have the potential to reduce obesity overall, narrow these stubborn disparities, and help ensure that a child’s opportunity to grow up healthy is not limited by where she lives, how much money her family makes, or the color of her skin. By building on these recent successes, we can not only ensure more healthy food on the table for families that need it the most, but also advance the cause of a fairer and more equitable society.

Jamie Bussel is a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation