New study finds Obama-era school meal policy contributes to decline in obesity rates for children in poverty

A new study examining the effect of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act on children found that, since the policy was enacted in the 2012–13 school year, obesity rates for children in poverty decreased by 47 percent. While the study in Health Affairs, “Impact Of The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act On Obesity Trends,” cannot definitively say the link is causal, no such change in obesity rates was found for children overall, suggesting that the new meal and snack standards for the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program and Smart Snacks guidelines available to low-income children contributed to the decrease.

The original guidelines for the federal meal programs had not been updated in the 15 years prior to 2010, and their nutritional guidelines did not reflect more current concerns of childhood obesity and diet-related chronic disease. The HHFKA aligned school meal programs with research-backed optimal nutrition standards, most notably by incorporating more fruits and vegetables, limiting the amount of starchy vegetables, serving only fat-free or low-fat milk and incorporating more whole grains. The HHFKA also initiated the Smart Snacks guidelines, which removed sugary beverages from school campuses and reduced the sugar and calorie content of foods sold at schools.

Worth noting is that, prior to the enactment of the HHFKA, the odds of becoming obese had been increasing each year for children in poverty. After the implementation of the act, these same children had a 9-percent decrease in the odds of becoming obese year after year. “In 2018 the predicted probability of obesity for children in poverty was approximately 0.21 with the HHFKA but would have been expected to be 0.31 had the time trends prior to HHFKA continued — in other words, a 47 percent reduction in the predicted probability of obesity,” the study reads.

The study comes at an optimum time as the Trump Administration attempts to roll back many of the science-based nutritional requirements in the HHFKA. In the last few years, the requirements for whole grains had been relaxed — although that rule was recently invalidated by a federal court —and a proposed rule published in January 2020 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would allow schools to serve fewer non-starchy vegetables and fruits, and, critics worry, replace them with more pizza, hamburgers and fries, as well as relax current calorie-limit requirements.

Policies such as the HHFKA that shape what foods and drinks are available in schools reach at least 50 million U.S. children who participate in the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. According to the study, the standards “provide an important opportunity to improve health, particularly for lower-income and minority children, who tend to have less access to healthy food and poorer dietary quality as well as a higher risk for obesity compared to other children.”