Two new studies point to the school lunch program as at least partly to blame for childhood obesity (h/t Kids Prefer Cheese). 

The first study, “Does the National School Lunch Program Improve Children’s Dietary Outcomes?“published in the July 2011 edition of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, found that “participants in the National School Lunch Program do not consume a higher-quality diet at lunch than children choosing not to participate, even though the program is offered – but rather consume a higher quantity of foods while consuming similar amounts at other meals.” 

The second study, “Child care subsidies and childhood obesity,” published this month in the Review of Economics of the Household found that “subsidy receipt is associated with increases in BMI and a greater likelihood of being overweight and obese.”  

So, what we have here is further evidence that government-provided meals do little to improve children’s nutrition and in fact may be making them less healthy by increasing their BMIs. 

These studies are particulary interesting in light of a survey of school nutrition directors (I wrote about the survey here) which showed that healthy options are already being provided in schools in the form of whole grain bread, salad bars, skim milk, etc.  The survey showed that without federal involvement (through the just-passed Healthy and Hunger Free Children’s Nutrition Bill), school administrators were already trying to improve the meals served in school cafeterias.   

So, why the inconsistency here?  If school lunches “aren’t so bad after all” as I wrote last month, why are the kids who eat them overweight?  Perhaps some will take these two recent studies as proof that the Obama administration is right — school lunches are bad and the federal government must get in there and change them. It is, after all, for the child sake!

But exactly the opposite is true. The two studies mentioned above are entirely consistent with the survey done of the school nutrition directors.  All of the data points to the same truth which is, yes, schools can try to integrate “healthy options” but many children will simply choose the unhealthy items instead because that’s what children do.  Children don’t have the reasoning skills or the self-control to always make the right and proper decision. That’s where parents come in and why home-packed meals are so important. 

Parents tell children they must do something for their own good–like eat what’s been packed for them. There might be tantrums, tears and refusals but that’s what “go to your room!” and “you’re grounded!” is for.  School lunches, no matter the effort to make them healthy, will never be a good replacement for a meal provided by a parent.  There’s only one true way to control what kids are eating and that’s for parents to stay involved in their child’s nutrition.