How the School Lunch Program Affects Low-Income Girls

This study was conducted to assess the effectiveness of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) among children from low-income homes. It also examined the ways in which participation influences the sex and body mass indices of the involved children. More than 1,000 boys and girls from low-income families participated in this study. It was found that among children actively involved in the school lunch program, the girls showed increases in body mass index but the boys failed to show any change.

In 2008, 20 percent of children in the U.S., aged 6 to 11, were obese while the prevalence of obesity among adolescents aged 10 to 17 had increased by 10 percent. Obesity in children has been linked with diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. In girls, obesity could cause early puberty, in turn increasing early marriages, depression, eating issues and breast cancer. Previously, with the rampant prevalence of malnutrition, schools with the ability to provide better quality meals to children were targeted. However, these meals are held responsible for amplifying the recent incidences of obesity. One study showed that first grade children from low-income families weighed more than those from well-off families. Since there were no previous studies that correlated the gender and body mass index of children in the national school lunch program, this study was undertaken.

* Data for this study was obtained from the National Center for Education Statistics. The study sample consisted of 1140 students who belonged to low-income families, were registered in the national school lunch program and, were monitored until the eighth grade.
* The height and weight of each student was obtained in order to calculate the body mass index.
* Other variables like TV watching, physical activity, and number of family meals were also noted.

* Nearly 10 percent of the children from families earning less than $20,000 annually did not participate in the national school lunch program.
* Non-Hispanic black children from low-income families were 39 percent more likely than non- Hispanic white children to take part in the lunch program. Similarly, more Hispanic children participated with the national school lunch program than the non-Hispanic white children.
* Children spending more hours watching television were 9 percent more likely to consistently participate in the program than those watching less television. Children from families who ate breakfast were less likely to participate in the program.
* The girls from low-income families, who participated in the lunch program, had higher rates of change in body mass index, as compared to those who didn’t participate. However, this was not observed in the boys.

Shortcomings/Next steps
A few studies state that females tend to over-report physical activity and this parameter could have been biased. A few measures in this study were based on recall, thus leading to biases. The study lacks information on food consumption outside the school environment. Thus, key information on food patterns is lacking in this study. Future research should target details on the food intake, patterns and habits, along with physical activity and monitoring of the parameters.

This study highlighted the influence of participation in the national school lunch program and its effects on body mass index in both boys and girls, from low-income families. Almost 10% of those from very low-income families did not participate in this school lunch program and the reasons remain unknown. This study shows that low-income children participating in the lunch program live in poor socioeconomic environments and their “poor living conditions have also been associated with more fast-food restaurants in the area and with fewer opportunities for physical activity, both of which are correlates of obesity.” Better understanding of the children’s preferences of food and their environmental stressors could provide ideas on altering the food items in the lunch programs and thereby reducing incidences of obesity.

For More Information:
Influence of the National School Lunch Program on Body Mass Index of Children from Low-income Families
Publication Journal: The Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, April 2011
By Daphne C Hernandez PhD; Lori A Francis PhD; Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.

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