Photo: Children Smiling

by Tandis Bishop, RDN

Childhood obesity affects everyone on a national and global scale. One in 3 children in the United States is overweight or obese. Aside from the short and long term health effects, this growing epidemic has significant medical costs and social consequences.1 Most strategies to fight childhood obesity look at removing things – for example taking out empty-calorie foods such as sugary drinks and refined grains from school vending machines and lunches. But a new study finds that one of the most economical and impactful ways to reduce obesity in children is to give them healthy food at school – and at no extra cost.

This may seem like common sense, but the battle over the national school lunch standards has shown that cutting back the unhealthy food kids eat for breakfast and lunch has not been easy. However, according to new research from the University of Arkansas, giving kids free fruits and vegetables is.

The study, published in the journal Applied Economics Perspective and Policy, examined the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP). The program provides free fresh fruits and vegetables between meals and as snacks to students, especially to those in the nation’s poorest elementary schools.2

Arkansas researchers found that once FFVP began, obesity rates had dropped 3 percent in sampled low-income elementary schools. Mike Thomsen, associate professor of agricultural economics and agribusiness at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture considers the 3 percent point difference, “a dent in the obesity problem.”

Childhood obesity puts kids at risk for health problems that were once seen only in adults, like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. It also affects their mental, emotional and social well-being as they grow into adulthood. In fact, evidence shows children and adolescents who are obese are likely to be obese as adults.3

September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month and in recognition we want to encourage our communities, health professionals, lawmakers, and families to work together to create opportunities for kids to eat healthier. Let’s provide our children with practical, tasty and affordable access to fresh fruits and vegetables. “Crowd out” their plates and everyday lives with healthier choices and habits.

What can you do at home?

  • Introduce a new fruit or vegetable each week. Allow children to taste it even if it’s just one bite. Continue offering them regularly and prepare the vegetables in different ways
  • Mix vegetables in your child’s favorite meal. Transform the usual mac n’ cheese into “mac n’ trees” by mixing steamed bite-sized broccoli florets into it. Mix diced fresh tomatoes, zucchini and mushrooms into their favorite pasta sauce.
  • Pre-cut fresh fruit and have it ready to eat at the table for snacks.
  • Choose whole foods in their natural state, such as:  a whole apple instead of apple juice or fruit gummies, fresh vegetables instead of fried veggie chips, and brown rice or oatmeal instead of breads, crackers and cereals made from white flour.
Footnotes: 

1. Ross A Hammond and Ruth Levine. The economic impact of obesity in the United States. Diabetes Metab Syndr Obes. 2010; 3: 285–295. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3047996/
2. Freedman D, Wang J, Thornton JC, et al. Classification of body fatness by body mass index-for-age categories among children. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 2009;163:801–811.
3. Yiwei Qian, Rodolfo M. Nayga Jr., Michael R. Thomsen and Heather L. Rouse. The Effect of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program on Childhood Obesity. Appl. Econ. Perspect. Pol. (2015)