A recent report issued by scientists from the Atkins Center for Weight and Health at UC Berkeley examined the impact of the School Lunch Initiative (SLI) on the eating behaviors of children transitioning from elementary school to middle school. The SLI is sponsored by the Chez Panisse Foundation, founded in 1996 by Alice Waters.
The SLI is a system-wide program that includes cooking and gardening classes, integration of school lunch with food and nutrition curriculum, and improvements in campus food and dining services. The report examined the eating behavior of children at schools enriched with the SLI compared with children at schools with similar foods but without the program. The research followed fourth and fifth graders for three years to see the effects of the program during the transition from elementary school to middle school, since this is a time when healthy eating often deteriorates in children.
According to the report, SLI may have the potential to reverse the deterioration of healthy eating habits that children typically exhibit as they transition to adolescence. Compared with children in control schools, kids at schools with the SLI ate more vegetables, fruits and demonstrated greater knowledge of nutrition and health. Students in the SLI also showed greater preference for vegetables, particularly green leafy vegetables. Over the same period, children in schools without the SLI decreased their intake of fruits and vegetables both in and out of school. These trends were still apparent one year after completion of the SLI, when the students were in seventh grade.
The report is the first examination of the effectiveness of integrated school lunch programs on the healthy eating behaviors of children over an extended period. With the growing epidemic of childhood obesity, comprehensive school lunch programs have tremendous potential to improve the health and habits of developing children.
Though body mass index (BMI) improvements were not found in the current study, small sample size and measurement limitations may have made changes statistically undetectable. Since the trends observed in the eating habits of children in the SLI would predict a decreased risk for obesity, further studies are warranted to pursue the value of the program for improving health and body weight.
With the recent attention on the importance of school lunch programs (October 11-15 has been declared National School Lunch Week by the USDA), data on programs like SLI will be critical and could serve as a model for more broad government programs to improve nutrition at schools.