Food Interventions and Schools — Some History

This post and the next few will look backward over the past decade, at interventions that have been implemented through public schools, in an effort to curb childhood obesity. Schools are affected by federal, state, and local rules and restrictions, so uniformity is sometimes hard to achieve. In a way this is good, because various schools and districts have been able to try different responses and gather data from their experiments.

In another way, this is bad, because voters and taxpayers don’t want experiments — they want proven methods that work. But the only way to prove any method is to try it. Which brings us back to the place where things simply may not work.

In late 2010, a federal school nutrition bill was criticized because it would be financed by taking money from food stamps, achieving possibly no net gain to the stated goal, which was to improve children’s nutrition. Reporter Braden Goyette interviewed Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, and wrote,

According to Berg, there’s a lack of understanding for the connection between hunger and obesity. When people have so little to stretch on food, what’s filling will take precedence over what’s healthy. Especially with the proposed cuts, there’s practically no money to spend on fruits and vegetables after filling staples like pasta and meat.

Only a year before, a study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine posited that nearly half of all American children — including 90% of black children — would be dependent on food stamps at some point in their childhood. The child nutrition bill was generally recognized as a good thing, but not if it could only be financed at the expense of food stamp recipients.

Thanks but no thanks

Three years later, for The Atlantic, Olga Khazan looked back at how this played out in America’s second-largest school system, Los Angeles Unified. The title of her article made a bold and doom-laden assertion: “Here’s Why Making School Lunches Healthier Won’t Solve Childhood Obesity.”

At the time, L.A. Unified contained over 650,000 students, of whom 42% — that’s almost half — were categorized as overweight or obese. This, despite the fact that Los Angeles schools had banned soda and junk food sales back in 2004. When the new, healthier lunch menus were introduced, kids just brought in junk food from outside. The district backed down somewhat and loosened the standards and discontinued some of the more “exotic” dishes that kids were not adventurous enough to try, or to develop a taste for.

Still, 32% of students did not avail themselves of the fresh fruit offerings, and nearly 40% abjured the vegetables. Worse yet, among those who helped themselves to fruits and vegetables, about a quarter of them threw away the fresh food, wasting it. Los Angeles students were throwing away an estimated $100,000 worth of perfectly good food every day.

Supposedly, a child needs to try an unfamiliar vegetable eight or 10 times before deciding they like it. How many kids, realistically speaking, are willing to try something more than once? Therein lies one of the sad contradictions of young human existence. Very few kids like the taste of beer, whiskey, or tobacco on their first try. And yet they persist, until their palates become accustomed to these poisons. But new vegetables? Forget it. If a tryout even happens at all, it’s one and done.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Cutting Food Stamps in Favor of School Lunches Will Hurt Kids,”, 10/04/10
Source: “Here’s Why Making School Lunches Healthier Won’t Solve Childhood Obesity,”, 05/24/14
Image by Shane Global/(CC BY 2.0)

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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