In the Age of Obesity . . . Childhood Hunger?

by Bettina Elias Siegel on July 1, 2010

A reader recently wrote a comment which I imagine reflects the views of  a lot of people:

I’m confused about the goals of the CNA [Child Nutrition Act, the legislation governing school breakfast and lunch, among other programs]. Why do we need to increase participation in school meal programs? When these programs were first introduced, malnutrition and hunger were significant issues in our country. . . . Back then, teachers could see hunger by observing how skinny the children are. These days, teachers in the same school districts observe how obesity is endemic in their students.

I would guess that in the US today, hunger is not a prevalent problem. Malnutrition might be, especially in certain demographics, and if that is the case then that should be the focus of federally mandated school meals. . . . . With our country’s culture of fast food and packaged processed meals, I find it hard to believe that even the most financially strapped community has children who are starving for calories.

Before I dove into the school lunch issue, I felt exactly the same way.   One only has to look around a mall or theme park to know that we need to offer our kids fewer calories, not more, right?

As it turns out, though, both I and this reader were wrong.  While childhood obesity is of course a real problem in America, so, too, is childhood hunger.

According to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), “In 2008, nearly 16.7 million American children, or almost one in four, lived in food insecure households where their families faced a constant struggle against hunger” (emphasis mine).  And, according to Share our Strength, the number of children going hungry has only increased from last year, perhaps an unsurprising finding given the growing economic insecurity many American families currently face.  Indeed, according to FRAC, in 2008, the number of people (adults and children) falling in the “very low food security” category more than doubled since 2000.

Childhood hunger is also very much an issue in American schools.  In Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, Janet Poppendieck interviews food service directors and principals around the country (and, surprisingly, not just in impoverished areas) who describe how the school breakfast line on a Monday morning (especially following a long weekend or a vacation) is always noticeably longer than other days of the week, as hungry children return to school and get what may be their first adequate meal in days.  One director quoted in the book says, “You can tell the hungry kids when they come through a line . . . . They are not misbehaving, but they are just .  . .  it’s almost like they are grabbing the food. . . . [T]hey will start eating in line, that kind of thing.”

Moreover, hunger has been implicated in impaired cognitive function and lower test scores, student absenteeism, tardiness, visits to the school nurse and discipline problems.  In a very real sense, hunger is an educational issue as much as it is a moral one.

As explained in my School Lunch FAQs and elsewhere, under the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, schools are required to offer free and reduced price meals to any child who qualifies. So, theoretically, every one of those 16.7 million hungry children – if they’re of school age and enrolled in school that participates in the both programs -  should be eating at least two free (or affordable) meals a day during the school week.   But that’s far from the current reality.  Many hungry children stay hungry, even in American schools.

Why is this so?  The answers to this question are complex and too long to be addressed in a single blog post. I’ll take them on, one at a time, over the coming days.  Stay tuned.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Anthony Ranieri July 1, 2010 at 1:20 pm

One should not make the mistake of thinking that an obese person is not malnourished. While I was doing my masters in oriental medicine I had the opportunity to take classes in chinese nutrition theory, western basic nutrition and western clinical nutrition, and I learned some interesting things–notably for the current topic, that a lot of obesity in this country is driven by malnutrition. I don’t have the research at hand, but the story from my clinical nutrition professor is that when chemical analysis is done of standard market produce sold currently and compared to analysis of the same types of produce typically available in markets in 1950, the current produce has approximately 40% of the nutritional value (in terms of vitamins, minerals, etc.) of 1950 produce. That is to say, that we would need to eat 2.5 times the weight (and that means calories) to get the same nutritional content. Surely, there is a lot of obesity that is the result of needless overconsumption. However, it mustn’t be discounted that some portion of obesity is the result of bodies trying to satisfy nutritional needs which can only be done at the expense of taking in more calories. A fat kid, while oversupplied with calories, is very probably undersupplied in micronutrients.

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bettina elias siegel July 1, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Anthony: That information about the declining nutritional value of food is very interesting. I’ve heard about that in the context of discussions re: soil depletion, chemical fertilizers and other side effects of modern farming, but never in the context of obesity. Fascinating. And there’s another link between hunger and obesity as well that I didn’t mention – if a child is in a food-scarce household, he or she may miss meals and then overcompensate wildly at the first opportunity, which can also result in an obese but malnourished body. Thanks as always for reading and commenting. – Bettina

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Anthony Ranieri July 1, 2010 at 4:01 pm

Soil depletion is the underlying issue. I know only tidbits about this, but the math goes something like this: Farming depletes something like 19 or 20 types of nutrients in soil. The standard in farming practices is to replace only 3 of those. So, not much left to make it’s way into the tomato you’re slicing up for that sandwich…

And you’re welcome. Your blog posts are interesting and I believe in supporting my friends!

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just a mom in mesquite July 1, 2010 at 8:18 pm

My concern isn’t the calories/fat in school lunches. I’m more worried about the complete lack of nutrition..and the hungry kids! Over the past years, school days have gotten longer, while recess and time spent *just moving* has become shorter. So has the time allowed for them to eat. To make up for that (aka…the obesity), someone somewhere decided the kids needed less calories jam packed in a small, easy to cram down their throat, handheld food item. Kids go all day (seven hours) with one twenty minute meal *usually early in the day* and one twenty five minute recess.
Their bodies probably think they are starving. Ugh.

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bettina elias siegel July 1, 2010 at 9:17 pm

Just a Mom – so glad to welcome a fellow school food blogger to The Lunch Tray. (BTW, I’m putting your site into my blog roll asap.) I agree that the quality of the food is a huge issue (although right now the calorie requirements per meal are actually quite high — see my School Lunch FAQs). But when kids are truly going without food at home, or where food is scarce and not regularly available, I think most of us would agree that what’s on the current lunch trays is far better than nothing. More on all of this to come! – Bettina

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Karen July 1, 2010 at 9:32 pm

Thanks for bringing my comment into a post! I understand that many kids are in situations where the next meal is iffy – food insecurity has got to be very scary. I know adults who grew up this way (and I’m sure my grandparents all lived without regular meals for large parts of their childhoods) and that kind of fear stays with you all through life. I do agree that school meals can play an important role in providing a regular and significant source of food for these kids.

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bettina elias siegel July 1, 2010 at 9:55 pm

All true, but your original point is valid as well – we still need to focus on what’s on those lunch trays, too.

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