News, On Campus

‘Should the government get involved?’: Improving Nutrition in Public Schools

The most impactful way to effect change in children’s nutrition is through legislative action that impacts their food choices at school, according to Marlene Schwartz.

“What layers and systems can you change to make it easier for parents to raise healthy children?” Schwartz said. “At the very top is the policy level. This is where you influence children’s [meals] through the federal food programs.”

Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health and professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Connecticut, spoke at the Boston College Park Street Corporation Speaker Series on Sept. 27 in a lecture about her experience with nutrition reform in public schools throughout America.

According to Schwartz, she worked the first 10 years of her career as a clinician treating different eating disorders. In the 1990s to the early 2000s, it was not just statistical data pointing to a public health crisis, but also observations of her patients at the clinic, she said.

“By the late ’90s, early 2000s, we were really seeing a public health crisis, and we knew about that from the research, but we were also seeing it in our clinic,” she said.

Schwartz said she noticed patients’ environments outside of the clinic made it challenging for them to follow her prescribed treatment.

“I often felt that I would try to help patients in my office, and then they would turn around and go out into this environment that basically undid everything I was trying to accomplish,” she said.

When Schwartz’s own child started elementary school, she noticed how unhealthy eating habits were promoted and unrestrained, she said.

“My personal and professional world collided,” she said. “I got a flier for a PTA-sponsored cookie-eating contest, and I have to say that flier is really what sent me over the edge.”

In response to her concerns, Schwartz said she started a wellness committee at her daughter’s elementary school, which initially began with a few school teachers, the school nurse, and the principal.

Schwartz said that through these wellness committees, she was able to influence the school’s nutrition policy.

“Schools were really the first battleground in this effort to change policies and improve the food environment,” she said.

Schwartz then launched a pilot program during the 2004–2005 school year—switching the current lunch options for students at some schools with healthier alternatives and examining the effects of the switch to schools that kept their lunches the same.

“The students in the pilot schools consumed more healthy snacks and beverages and fewer unhealthy snacks and beverages,” she said “There was no evidence of a compensatory increase in junk food at home.”

After launching the program, Schwartz said she faced pushback from some parents at the pilot schools.

“I was finding that there were parents who were actually not happy that we were making these changes,” she said.

According to Shwartz, some of the parents’ concerns were rooted in politics rather than nutritional facts. Schwartz said she received an email from a parent concerned about the implications food restrictions could have on freedom.

“[The email said] ‘This is America where we continue to fight and die for basic rights and freedom, and if students choose to drink whole milk and eat ice cream, they retain the right to do so,’” Schwartz said. “So clearly, I was like ‘Okay, this is really not about nutrition, this is really not about kids, this is really about politics. … Should the government get involved?’”

Schwartz ended her lecture explaining the role of political leaders in implementing changes to school lunches. She said while some political leaders, like Michelle Obama, help promote important policy changes, others, like those within the Trump administration, weaken policies by reducing government intervention.

“Political objectives can be an asset if you have someone like Michelle Obama, or they can actually interfere in an administration that’s really trying to roll back government regulations,” Schwartz said.

October 11, 2022