Childhood Obesity and Fast Food Restaurants

Yesterday Rudy Nayga, the Tyson Chair in Food Policy Economics from the University of Arkansas, visited my department and gave a seminar on the relationship between childhood obesity and the location fast food restaurants in relation to schools.

He gave a careful account of the difficulty in attributing causation (and not just correlation) between the distance of fast food restaurants to schools and children’s weights, and described the ways they tried to deal with the challenge. In short, he finds that for every extra fast food restaurant within a mile of an elementary school, the percentage of students at the school who are obese goes up by about 1 percentage point.

As you might imagine, the result provoked a lot of discussion. Some of it naturally revolved around the efficacy and effectiveness of new zoning laws. However, the most interesting part of the discussion for me was Rudy’s discussion on the sizes of cafeterias relative to the increasing study body, which results in many school children have to eat lunch as early as 10am! In many schools (including my own kids’ school), children have to be run through the cafeteria so quickly they hardly have time to eat. Couple that with the new federal guidelines limiting the number of calories that can be served, and it is no wonder many kids are starving by the time school gets out and beg to go to McDonalds!

In addition all the above, I'd also add that because of increased curricula requirements, PE has been cut to the bone in most schools.

Alas, it seems most of the discussions I hear about improving childhood health in schools revolve around "sexier" headline-grabbing issues like serving more fruits and veggies, serving more local foods, zoning rules, banning sodas, teaching gardening, and so on. It may just be that the less "sexy" (and potentially less costly) issues like encouraging exercise, increasing cafeteria time or size, or giving a small afternoon snack, may be more promising.

And, at the end of the day, we have to keep in mind that it is not just childhood obesity that is a concern.  We also have to worry about childhood hunger.