Children in the Tree

Understanding the Legacy of Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids

A decade has passed since President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act into law. In this time of great polarization, any big policy decision can generate controversy and this one is no exception. The purpose was to improve the quality of nutrition provided in school lunch and breakfast program, But some want to argue that it works to prevent obesity. A new analysis suggests that this might be an over-promise.

In fact, the degree to which different school districts implemented requirements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has had no apparent effect on childhood obesity rates.

Compliance with School Nutrition Standards

This analysis comes from doctoral research by Catrina Morgan. In pursuit of a PhD in public health, she analyzed high school obesity prevalence between 2009 and 2016 and its relationship to implementation of these new nutrition standards. She used data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System and data on state-level compliance with the Act. More than half of all states (27) achieved 100 percent compliance, but the remaining 23 states only partly followed these standards.

Through the time frame of the study, high school obesity rates rose significantly. But after adjusting for ethnicity, income, and rural population, found no effect for compliance with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. In fact, the only variable that predicted the trend in obesity rates was median income.

So What?

By no means does this suggest that these nutrition standards are not valuable. It simply suggests that to promise they will serve to reverse obesity trends is a false promise. Morgan writes that we should be looking harder for solutions that will actually work to reduce obesity in this age group:

“The causes of high school obesity are complex and intractable. While the HHFKA was a commonsense approach to addressing obesity, mean high school obesity rates continued to climb. The devastating personal and societal cost of high school obesity demands additional research and interventions to improve students’ lives.”

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was a big part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative. As an anti-obesity program, it has had little effect. But it has done much to improve nutrition for youth in America. We would do well to learn from this experience and move ahead.

Click here for Morgan’s dissertation, here and here for further perspective on these programs and their effects.

Children in the Tree, painting by Maurice Prendergast / WikiArt

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August 21, 2021