Thursday, 29 October 2009

Healthy choices for school meals

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) at the National Academies on October 20 published new guidelines, which may lead to more healthy meals in federal school nutrition programs.

The recommendations, if implemented by USDA, will bring school meals standards in line with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In light of current concerns about overweight and obesity, the IOM report suggests food energy maximum levels as well as the current minimum levels. It also suggests upper bounds on salt and saturated fat.

The report, titled School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children, seems astutely focused and un-fussy. It recommends a drastic simplification in the way nutrition standards are used in meal planning and determining a meal's eligibility for federal reimbursement. It suggests nutrient benchmarks for developing federal standards, but it recommends that actual meal planning and reimbursements be based primarily on foods instead of nutrients. Rather than pursue a long list of distracting micronutrient benchmarks, the report promotes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

In a special child nutrition issue of Choices Magazine from the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA), published today, Iowa State University economist Helen Jensen comments: "the recommendations are consistent with a growing body of research, as well as encouragement from stakeholder groups to change the school meals to be consistent with the dietary needs of school children today." Jensen is editor of the special issue and also a member of the IOM committee that produced the new report.

Today's special issue of Choices also contains gently contrasting views about measures that school food services might take to improve school meals, while remaining financially viable. Cornell economists David Just and Brian Wansink use principles of behavior science to suggest nudges in the direction of healthier meals:
Thus, the object of using behavioral economics in school lunch rooms is to guide choices in a way that is subtle enough that children are unaware of the mechanism. These subtle changes often have the advantage of being relatively cheap and easy to implement. This is a clear advantage given the financial climate. However, behavioral economic instruments cannot achieve 100% compliance. For example, the only way to eliminate soda consumption in a school is to eliminate the soda. If we instead approach the problem by allowing choice but place the soda at some disadvantage in the marketplace, we can reduce soda consumption substantially but not eliminate it. To preserve choice, we will necessarily have to allow some individuals to purchase items that are less nutritious. But we can make these choices less convenient or less visible, by moving the soda machines into more distant, less visited parts of the school.
(Wansink was interviewed at U.S. Food Policy in 2007).

On the other hand, I have an article in Choices, with Friedman School graduate student Mary Kennedy, discussing the economic environment in which school food services must operate. Because of interactions between student demand for more and less healthy options, we suggest that reining in less healthy competitive foods may give school food authorities more room to maneuver in providing better choices.
The Just and Wansink article in this theme warns against unintentionally increasing the appeal of unhealthy products by banning them outright. Nevertheless, placing some reasonable limits on competitive food is not really economic heresy.

For centuries, economists have admired markets as a coordinating tool for economic decisions in communities composed of households, but economists have always acknowledged beneficent non-market decision-making within households. Schools are not marketplaces but educational institutions responsible for the welfare of their charges.

If schools are expected to respond to the current epidemic of childhood obesity by improving the school food environment, and taxpayers are reluctant simply to provide more resources, then there is some merit in considering measures to enhance the relative competitive position of healthy meals served through the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program.

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