Pandem School Lunches

Policy-Based Evidence for School Nutrition

If you work with the numbers long enough, you can get the answer you want. In Health Affairs, researchers claim to have found “a 47 percent reduction in obesity prevalence” due to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. Now that’s impressive evidence for the value of school nutrition!

Reducing childhood obesity prevalence is indeed an impressive feat. Unfortunately, though this is the story that Harvard’s School of Public Health tells in its press release, it’s not what the study proves. While the authors do make the 47 percent claim, they also conclude:

We found no significant association between the legislation and childhood obesity trends overall.

Pesky Limitations

We give the authors credit. Despite claiming that they found an effect of the legislation on obesity prevalence, toward the end of their paper they do discuss the study’s limitations. They write:

There are several limitations that preclude us from definitively attributing any changes in obesity to the HHFKA.

They note that their estimates for a trend are unreliable. The authors disclose that they have no data on whether or not the subjects in the study actually ate the food in question. They had no comparison group. Researchers depended on parents for reports of height and weight, which means that their estimates of obesity prevalence are unreliable.

But if you only read the headline, the abstract, and the press release, this is impressive evidence for an important nutrition policy.

Policy-Based Evidence

For many reasons other than reducing obesity prevalence, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act is good public policy. Widely celebrated as a success for First Lady Michelle Obama, it helped to cut junk food from school nutrition. That was a challenging task and it continues to be a struggle.

But trumping up flimsy evidence that it will reverse obesity does not help claims about the importance of school nutrition. It makes sense to serve nutritious food to our children at school. But it makes no sense to deceive ourselves that this will cut childhood obesity rates by 47 percent. It just ain’t so.

Click here for the study and here for the press release.

Pandemic School Lunches, photograph © Phil Roeder / flickr

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July 8, 2020

2 Responses to “Policy-Based Evidence for School Nutrition”

  1. July 08, 2020 at 8:45 am, Allen Browne said:

    Yup – apple pie and motherhood are great, but they do not change the incidence of the disease of obesity.

  2. July 08, 2020 at 12:34 pm, David Brown said:

    This community-wide Blue Zones project might be a good pattern for success.