Dr. Marlene Schwartz was welcomed to Boston College on September 27, 2022 as a speaker from the University of Connecticut, where she teaches human development and family sciences. Her work revolves around advocating for improving public health of students through scientific case studies and state and federal policies on nutrition.
Schwartz began her talk by explaining that school is a logical place to start when beginning to teach young children about and promote healthy eating habits. Typically, the school cafeteria not only supplies lunch, breakfast, and snacks to students throughout the day, but also makes food accessible through fundraisers and vending machines. With so much access to foods in schools, it is important that schools promote healthy eating to their young, impressionable students.
“[There was] a problem with childhood obesity… research started to come out showing things like elementary school lunches had 115% of the maximum recommended amount of sodium, fat, and added sugars that a child should have in the whole day,” Schwartz emphasized.
Schwartz recognized the problem of over-nutrition in schools from excess caloric intake through unhealthy food options such as pizza, french fries, and other cheap, greasy foods. She also found that there was an emphasis on capitalist priorities, and throughout the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, cheaper processed foods became more common to make larger profits at the expense of students’ health.
With the first comparative study Schwartz conducted, unhealthy food options were removed entirely from school vending machines and cafeterias in order to compare the effects with the control schools in that same district. She found that students in the pilot schools consumed more healthy snacks and beverages and fewer unhealthy ones. There were no negative side effects of the removal of unhealthy junk foods, and despite the decrease in a la carte sales, the pilot schools did not lose money due to an increase in school lunch purchases.
“For parents who opposed these [healthy nutrition] policies… it was not about nutrition, it was really not about the kids. This was really about politics; it’s about political beliefs, what is the role of government, and what should be left up to the individual,” Schwartz implored.
Despite some opposition, it was proven that state policies would help promote healthy nutrition in schools. Incentive policies would give schools an extra ten cents per lunch sold, given that the school district stopped selling unhealthy snacks to their students.
“Those local policies definitely can get you sort of down the road, but something like a state policy, especially ones that add financial incentive, can make a lot more progress a lot more quickly,” Schwartz explained.
This program has continually grown over the years, and now almost every district in Connecticut participates in it. It was not only financially beneficial, but also helped increase students’ fruit and vegetable consumption and improve their BMI trajectories in states with strong, specific laws regarding nutrition.
In 2010, the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act was passed due to the evidence provided concerning the financial and health benefits of nutrition laws in schools. The USDA was now required to set new standards for competitive foods and had to strengthen school wellness policies. Michelle Obama was credited for this work, and although celebrated among many, there were still targeted political attacks against her that had no concern for the actual achievements of this policy.
“I would argue that this is an intervention that does cost some, but it also means that the kids are getting more of their health needs satisfied,” Schwartz concluded.
While she still would’ve liked to see more progress in her home state’s health policies in schools, Schwartz found that over the past years there have been extremely beneficial local, state, and federal efforts towards nutritional improvement in schools. By putting concerns for the children’s health first, Schwartz was able to facilitate positive changes that resulted in healthier students across the country.