Junk Food Not to Blame for School Kids' Obesity?

A new study suggests that fatty snacks aren't causing kids to pack on pounds.

students at school vending machine
Yes, we'd rather they ate broccoli—but a new study suggests junk food in schools might not be the culprit when it comes to childhood obesity.
Megan is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Children's edible options at school are a hot topic—just ask anyone who weighed in on the chocolate milk wars at L.A. Unified School District. But a new study suggests that all the food fights may be for naught, at least among middle school students. Data from the study hints that junk food in schools might not be responsible for rising obesity rates.

The study followed a "nationally representative" sample of students from their kindergarten year through the spring of eighth grade, reports GoLocalProv

Of the 20,000 students in the study, 59.2 percent of fifth graders and 86.3 percent of eighth graders were enrolled at schools with junk food options. As time passed, the percentage of students with candy, soda, and chip options in their schools increased—but obesity levels didn't. More surprising, the percentage of students who were overweight or obese decreased from fifth to eighth grade, dropping nearly four percentage points. 

Jennifer Van Hook, Professor of Sociology and Demography at Pennsylvania State University and lead author of the study, said her team was shocked by the results and continued to investigate the issue for two years before finally publishing the study in the January issue of the Sociology of Education.

Considering the hype around junk food companies profiting from fattening up American youth, Van Hook expected to find a direct correlation between the availability of fatty snacks and obesity levels. "But our study suggests that—when it comes to weight issues—we need to be looking far beyond schools and, more specifically, junk food sales in schools, to make a difference," Van Hook told GoLocalProv.

Van Hook says that childhood obesity policies need to focus on other environments where kids might be overindulging in sugary snacks—at home, in their neighborhoods, or at convenience stores—and should target young children as they form eating habits that will stick with them for life. At the middle school level, it may already be too late, she says. She also points out that while schools have designated eating periods, outside of school kids can eat endlessly. 

Barbara B Robinson, MPH, RD, Pediatric Nutrition Specialist at Hasbro Children's Hospital, says schools are still responsible for representing students' best interests. 

"Implicit in allowing competitive foods in the schools is a passive stamp of approval," Robinson told GoLocalPov. "In essence, 'responsible' adults are condoning such foods. What kind of a message does that send to children?"

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