WASHINGTON, D.C. – A new study shows Michelle Obama’s efforts to fight childhood obesity through federal school food regulations isn’t working out so well.
A working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research published this month titled “School Lunch Quality and Academic Performance” took a look at how the National School Lunch Program impacted students’ health and academics by examining all public schools in California over a five-year period.
The results: “We do not find any evidence that healthier school lunches lead to a decrease in obesity rates.”
The research comes as members of the U.S. House Freedom Caucus and others are urging the Trump administration to consider efforts to repeal school food regulations imposed on schools through the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, Michelle Obama’s pet project.
Lawmakers approved the regulations in 2010 at the behest of the former first lady as a means of reducing childhood obesity by limiting calories, fat, sugar, salt, and other elements of school food served through the National School Lunch Program.
The regulations went into effect in 2012 and sparked an immediate backlash from students, parents, school food service directors, nutritionists, and others, for a variety of reasons. Many students refused to eat the less appetizing offerings and revolted with online campaigns, boycotts, and petitions. More than 1.4 million students stopped participating in the program entirely.
Hundreds of entire school districts also dropped out of the National School Lunch Program because of declining cafeteria sales and complaints from parents about paltry portion sizes. Schools that remained in the program were left to deal with a $1 billion annual increase in food waste, most of it tied to provisions that force students to take a fruit or vegetable, whether they want it or not.
“By leaving the program we will not be required to follow these onerous guidelines, pushed by and large by Michelle Obama, who last I checked has been elected by no one,” Rick Petfalski, then school board president for Wisconsin’s Muskego-Norway School District, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2014.
The resent National Bureau of Economic Research study found that schools that contracted with a “healthy school lunch vendor,” rather than attempt to navigate the federal rules in-house, seemed to have some impact on academics.
“It found that schools that contracted with a ‘healthy school lunch vendor’ showed higher test scores on state standardized tests, especially for students in low-income families that qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program,” the Washington Examiner reports.
“Interestingly, the study found no change in the number of meals consumed at schools with healthy lunch vendors, which suggests that the quality of the food rather than the amount of food consumed is responsible for the academic improvement.”
The authors – which included Michael Anderson and Elizabeth Ritchie of the University of California-Berkeley, and Justin Gallagher at Case Western Reserve University – suggested that schools switch to private contractors for meals as “a very cost-effective way to raise test scores.”