The Intersection of Hunger, Obesity and School Food

October 19, 2009

By Mark Bishop, Deputy Director

Discussions about the importance of school food frequently focus on two major issues: hunger (or food insecurity) and obesity. Usually, these two issues are considered to be opposing forces –  the argument goes that in a world of limited resources, you either support better access to food to address hunger, or you support better quality of food to address childhood obesity.

At HSC, we have always felt that this is division is simply not accurate; now another new study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association supports our slightly different perception of the issues.

So what's the connection? According to Elizabeth Metallinos-Katsaras, associate professor in the School for Health Sciences at Simmons College in Boston, “The findings of this study suggest that HFInsec is associated with overweight prevalence in low income ethnically and racially diverse girls. Age and sex, however, appear to modify both the magnitude and the directionality of the association.”

In other (and more simple) words: for the most part, children in food deserts have higher rates of obesity. Kids who are at risk of hunger are often also at risk of obesity.

As Rochelle said so well last January,

We know that healthy food is more expensive and unavailable in many low-income communities. Since low-income students are participating in the federal school food programs, this only underscores the need for higher nutritional standards and adequate funding for these programs. It is essential that all children have access to healthy food that will help meet their nutritional needs and give them the energy to learn and succeed in school.

Interestingly, a recent guest editorial in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer by Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Obesity Research and Nutritional Science Program at the University of Washington, underscores this point about what he calls the “dual burden of undernutrition and overweight.” He focuses on the fact that health food is more expensive and that the “the key predictor of weight gain may not turn out to be sugar or fat, but simply low diet cost.”

These points are still very true. The new research only adds further support to the point.

So what can we do? It goes back to providing increased funding for better school food while working to decrease barriers to participation. The Child Nutrition Act, which was up for reauthorization this fall and has now been extended until fall of 2010, Congress has the opportunity to provide the more money that schools need for better food. You can learn more and take action here.