The Literature on Local Food, School Nutrition, and the School Lunch Program

One of my prominent criticisms of Show-Me Institute blogger Sarah Brodsky’s opposition to local food movements is that her arguments are grounded in armchair theorizing without reference to any serious data or literature on the many and varied subjects that one might discuss on this issue. Here is a rough list of the work I am aware of in the field. The literature on the subject is deep and fascinating. I have attached commentary or key excerpts where possible. I apologize for any formatting inconsistencies, and I’ve tried to link to ungated versions of papers where possible. Obviously this is not close to an exhaustive list and I just realized I haven’t linked to any papers on the nutrition dilution hypothesis, so that’ll have to wait until I have time tomorrow.

Wilde and Kennedy in 2009, The Economics of a Healthy School Meal:

First, and most obviously, with a higher reimbursement rate or greater local subsidies, schools could better afford appealing, healthy foods even in those circumstances when they are more expensive. Second, with money for capital investments, it may be possible to improve nutritional quality and taste even at a constant per-meal reimbursement rate. But, these are the easy remedies. Hoping for additional resources is like wishing the harder challenges would just go away.

In the likely case that additional resources are limited because federal and local governments face continued severe budget constraints, school districts may consider measures that protect the federal meals programs from less healthy competition. Through local wellness policies, districts can establish rules about the nutritional quality of competitive foods and a “closed-campus” policy that limits competition from nearby restaurants and convenience stores at lunch time. Because of the interactions across business lines, such policies can improve the economic feasibility of serving healthy meals through the federal programs themselves.

The Link Between School Wellness Policies and Nutrition, Marlene Schwartz PhD (Yale) 2008:

School Nutrition Policy Initiative…(led to) 50% reduction in the incidence of overweight in the intervention schools

Concentration in Agriculture Markets (Data) by Heffernan and Hendrickson 2007 (Univ. of Missouri-Columbia)

Tim Cosby computes the rough aggregate costs of obesity and school lunches

School Meal Reform Opportunities for the Baltimore City Public School System, Wrigley 2006:

Certainly there are obstacles, such as current infrastructure and staffing levels that could not immediately accommodate some of the recommended changes, and there will likely be many cautionary tales about what is not possible and why. However, the dramatic need for intervention in the relationship between today’s students and the food they consume, coupled with the fact that other school systems have accomplished inspiring results, demands that serious consideration be given to a substantial and innovative school food reform.

It is worth pointing out philosophical and pedagogical issues that are present in these various approaches. Some organizations and persons active in the school food reform movement maintain that teaching our children about how to live in a healthy, life-sustaining manner is central and fundamental to the public school system’s mission and that when children and youth eat meals at school they are learning powerful lessons about what food to eat.  Students are equally missing fundamental lessons if they are not actively learning about food from a health and science perspective, including how food is grown and distributed, the nutritional value or harmful aspect of different kinds of food; how to prepare and cook food, etc.  Consistent with this philosophy are recommendations that seek a more thoroughgoing reform of the whole school food experience, including comprehensive, hands-on nutrition education, that will enable children and youth to expand their food preference and take on healthier eating habits outside the school walls.  Advocates of this position often note the benefits to improved nutrition for children’s academic performance and improved student behavior in addition to their health.

About the Virginia Farm-to-School Experience, McCann 2009

USDA ERS Symposium on Local Foods – The Economics and Supply Chain Issues. Lots of interesting analysis here. The general consensus revolves around the viability of new, mid-level distribution mechanisms between local food producers and consumers.

Associations Between Participation in the National School Lunch Program, Food Insecurity, and Child Well-Being, Duniforn (Cornell) and Kowaleski-Jones (Utah) 2001. Very good paper and worth at least a skim.

Effects of the National School Lunch Program on Education and Health, Hinrichs 2006 (MIT). Hinrichs finds large increases in academic achievement from participation in the National School Lunch program. He does not detect long-term health benefits from participation in the National School Lunch program, but acknowledges that the data has severe limitations on that front

Food for thought: The Effects of School Accountability Plans on School Nutrition, Figlio and Winicki 2002 (NBER working paper). They find evidence that smart school administrators in Virginia ‘game’ the test-based accountability system by upping student caloric intake during tests.

Breakfast of Champions? The School Breakfast Program and the Nutrition of Children and Families, Bhattacharya (Stanford), Curry (UCLA) and Haider (Michigan State) 2004:

We have three main findings. First, the SBP helps students build good eating habits: SBP increases scores on the healthy eating index, reduces the percentage of calories from fat, and reduces the probability of low fiber intake. Second, the SBP reduces the probability of serum micronutrient deficiencies in vitamin C, vitamin E, and folate, and it increases the probability that children meet USDA recommendations for potassium and iron intakes. Since we find no effect on total calories these results indicate that the program improves the quality of food consumed. Finally, in households with school-aged children, both preschool children and adults have healthier diets and consume less fat when the SBP is available. These results suggest that school nutrition programs may be an effective way to combat both nutritional deficiencies and excess consumption among children and their families.

Stanley Feld, MD, FACP, MACE in 2009:

The government is supposed to be our surrogate for food safety. The Food and Drug Administration is powerless and uninterested in controlling the abuse of large food producers.

People want their food to be safe. If Americans their food to be safe they are going to have take control its quality and safety. It is has to be done one meal at a time in one community at a time.

Parent/Teacher organizations (PTA’s) through local school districts are taking actions in ways our federal, state and local governments have failed prevent our children from becoming obese.

My granddaughter lives in the Boulder Valley School District. The local school district realized that a good place to start changing eating habits of children is in the primary grades. It is being done by the use of organic, low fat, whole grain menus in the school lunch program rather than the traditional cheap fried fast foods.

The Effects of School Gardens on Students and Schools: Conceptualization and Considerations for Maximizing Healthy Development, Emily Ozer (Health Education and Behavior 2007): This article has a complete defense of the entire concept of school gardens and introducing local food into students’ diets. I could not write a more compelling treatment of the subject if I tried. Ozer writes:

In addition to nutrition, science learning, and environmental awareness, there are observations of school gardens promoting students’ achievement, motivation to learn, psychosocial development (e.g., self-esteem, responsibility), behavioral engagement, and cooperation with peers (Pranis, 2004). School garden coordinators and policy makers

have also cited a range of positive impacts on the school culture and environment, including collective pride that this is a “good” school; increased sense of “ownership” of the school by the students; the creation of a safe, adult-monitored setting during recess for children who do not feel comfortable on the blacktop; and increased roles and involvement at the school for immigrant and other parents who have agricultural but not formal academic skills.

Youths at Nutritional Risk: Malnourished or Misnourished?, Bhattacharya (RAND) and Currie (UCLA and NBER) 2000:

While the preceding summary emphasizes instances in which our explanatory variables have statistically significant effects, it is striking that in many cases our models have relatively little explanatory power. This finding suggests that poor nutrition is a problem for American youths, regardless of family background. The very pervasiveness of the problem suggests that it is unlikely to be entirely due to a lack of household resources, and that broad-based policies designed to alter the composition of the diet, either through the provision of information (e.g. through nutrition labeling), or through direct provision of healthy food (as in the revised school lunch program), should be encouraged.

Fasting and cognition in well- and undernourished schoolchildren: a review of three experimental studies, Pollitt, Cueto, and Jacoby, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1998

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4 thoughts on “The Literature on Local Food, School Nutrition, and the School Lunch Program

  1. [...] more from the original source: The Literature on Local Food, School Nutrition, and the School … Share and [...]

  2. Caitlin Hartsell says:

    It’s all well and good to link to articles that show that nutritional foods benefit children… I don’t think Sarah or anyone else would really disagree with you there. But I don’t see any studies in your list that say that local food is more nutritious or better for students than food from a distance, which is the point that Sarah made. Your entire argument and objection to Sarah’s posts is useless without that. (I explain it better in a blog post where I made the argument in the other direction: local foods are less likely to be grown in optimal climates with good soil and their freshness and potential nutritional content is not improved and potentially worsened as a result of the “local” emphasis: http://www.showmedaily.org/2010/02/buying-local-not-always.html)

    While you make nice arguments for nutritional food, they do not address anything Sarah says at all. Her objection is not to local foods in and of themselves, but to districts forcing it upon their students as the only option. The real issue here is giving children access to healthy foods, whether they come from Missouri or California or South Africa. An undue top-down emphasis on locality is (as Sarah put it) protectionist and subverts the real issue of nutrition.

  3. [...] A Follow-up to the School Lunch/’Local Food’ Debate Filed under: Economics, Food — Eapen Thampy @ 12:18 pm Tags: caitlin hartsell, Sarah Brodsky, school lunch, Show-Me Institute Caitlin Hartsell in the comments: [...]

  4. [...] Here might be my most important post on school lunches; it is a rough survey of the literature. Included is this must-read paper from Emily Ozer on school [...]

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