Fight Childhood Obesity with Government-Funded School Meal Programs

School meal programs that provide every child with a lunch may be an appropriate long-term strategy to tackle the rising rate of childhood obesity. These government-funded programs do this by addressing household food insecurity and promoting food literacy and healthy eating.

Citation

Moffat, T., & Thrasher, D. (2014). School meal programs and their potential to operate as school-based obesity prevention and nutrition interventions: case studies from France and Japan. Critical Public Health, 1-14. doi:10.1080/09581596.2014.957654

What is this research about?

Existing school-based obesity programs have only modest effects. They focus too much on changing personal choice instead of on social factors that influence childhood obesity. Social factors, such as poverty, food insecurity, and social inequalities, contribute to childhood obesity. This research examines how school meal programs can tackle the problem of childhood obesity by tackling these social factors. It also considers the role of experiential education about healthy eating through these programs to address the obesity issue.
 
The school meal programs in France and Japan are strictly regulated to provide food with optimal nutrition to their elementary and junior high school students. Both countries have focused on school meal programs to combat growing rates of child obesity. These countries also have national legislation that have drawn attention to improving school lunch programs, such as the Programme National Nutrition-Santé in France and the Shokuiku Kihon Hō in Japan. The purpose of this research is to:

  1. Show that school meal programs with similar goals and philosophies can be successfully established in different national contexts.
  2. Determine whether school meal programs in France and Japan are potential models for other countries to fight childhood obesity.

What did the researchers do?

Two researchers worked independently in different countries. One studied schools in Paris, Montreuil and Seine St. Denis, France while the other studied schools in Utsunomiya, Japan. The researchers interviewed government officials, nutritionists, educators, and parents. They explored many aspects of each food program, such as governance and financial accessibility, nutritional quality of the meals, health goals, educational and cultural aspects of meal programs, and barriers to social inclusivity. The researchers also ate the food provided by the meal programs, noted menu items, and observed elementary and junior high students during lunch time.

What did the researchers find?

From these two case studies, the researchers found that:

  • Parents in both France and Japan believe that school meal programs are excellent ways for students to learn about and experience healthy eating. As children grow older, peer role models become more influential. Since much of the social interaction occur at school, it makes sense that children should share this healthy eating experience together.
  • Although there are differences in the way these school lunches are funded, they do not stigmatize children from low-income families who have their meal costs heavily subsidized (France).  Stigma is a big issue hindering the success of free lunch charity programs, because children may feel ashamed about receiving food from these programs.
  • School lunch programs in these countries do not easily accommodate for allergies or dietary restrictions. For example, in France, there are no vegetarian alternatives served on days when meals contain meat.
  • There have been no formal evaluations of how nutrition laws in France and Japan have affected child obesity prevalence. Therefore, more research must be done to determine whether these kind of national health promotion initiatives are effective in decreasing household food insecurity, promoting public consumption of healthy food, and preventing obesity. More research on the influence of school meal programs on children’s dietary habits is also needed.

How can you use this research?

Currently, Canada is one of the few G8 countries that lack these meal programs. Since the childhood obesity problem is influenced by the social factors mentioned above, policymakers could use the school meal programs in France and Japan as guides to develop their own government-funded school meal programs. Further examination of successful school food programs may provide more system-wide and sustainable ways to prevent childhood obesity.

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