Thursday, July 5, 2007

Teaching Kids About Healthy Food Doesn't Work

The Associated Press has conducted a review of 57 federally-fund nutritional education programs aimed at children and concluded they don't work.

The amount of funding involved is more than $1 billion. But apparently the message that fruits and vegetables are better doesn't cut it with kids. They just keep eating junk and get fatter and fatter.

"Any person looking at the published literature about these programs would have to conclude that they are generally not working," said Dr. Tom Baranowski, a pediatrics professor at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine who studies behavioral nutrition.

The AP concludes that federal programs aren't really aimed at modifying children's eating behaviors. Among the major bullets:

_Last year a major federal pilot program offering free fruits and vegetables to school children showed fifth graders became less willing to eat them than they had been at the start. Apparently they didn't like the taste.

_In Pennsylvania, researchers went so far as to give prizes to school children who ate fruits and vegetables. That worked while the prizes were offered, but when the researchers came back seven months later the kids had reverted to their original eating habits: soda and chips.

_In studies where children tell researchers they are eating better or exercising more, there is usually no change in blood pressure, body size or cholesterol measures; they want to eat better, they might even think they are, but they're not.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services is spending $696 million this year on childhood nutrition education, up from $535 million in 2003. An official with the division disputed the AP's conclusions, but said the USDA cannot afford long-term studies on whether the federal programs are actually changing children's eating behavior.

In Los Angeles, a $7 million USDA program reaches about 388,000 students a year. But, according to the Associate Press, "the most recent evaluation of the 8-year-old program was disheartening: no difference in the amount of fruits and vegetables eaten by kids participating in the program and those who weren't. Teachers who spent more hours on nutrition education had no greater impact than those who didn't. And parent behavior didn't change either."

One problem is that bad food is cheaper, so poorer children generally eat worse and suffer more from obesity. Another is all the advertising for junk food aimed at children.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that children ages 8 to 12 see an average of 21 television ads each day for candy, snacks, cereal and fast food _ more than 7,600 a year. Not one of the 8,854 ads reviewed promoted fruits or vegetables.

There was one ad for healthy foods for every 50 for other foods.

And of course it doesn't help that schools have been cutting back on physical education programs.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has announced plans to spend $500 million over the next five years to reverse the trend of childhood obesity. It will fund programs that bring supermarkets into poor neighborhoods, studies that measure the weight of children who exercise more at school and meetings of advocates who are seeking to restrict junk food ads.


Great Big Veg Challenge said...

You could write the same article about the UK. We had a wonderful improvement in school meals, in part due to a chef Jamie Oliver starting a campaign. But I really believe that if you don't help parents to learn to cook simple cheap food you might as well give up with healthy messages in school. Its parent power that needs to be harnessed.

Ed Bruske said...

I agree, Charlotte. Parents are not always providing the best example. Me included...