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Federal School Meals May Contribute to Rural Child Obesity, Report Says

Children who rely on school lunch programs have a higher likelihood of becoming overweight, possibly due to the food served through those federally-funded programs, according to a new report by researchers at Virginia Tech.

The report found that children in the South, Northeast and rural America who rely on school breakfast and lunch programs for one-third to one-half of their daily meals are especially susceptible to becoming overweight

The report focused on data from 1998 to 2007, before the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which mandated healthier school meals beginning with the 2012-13 school year. However, many students were critical of the healthy changes to school meals and were unwilling to eat some of the food. As my colleague Evie Blad reported in 2014, a pair of surveys found that some students have slowly come around to the healthier meals, which require schools to serve more fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Still, educators and school staff members reported in the surveys that students continue to throw away parts of their lunch, and overall, participation in the school meal program has been declining for years.

Researcher Wen You said the report shows a need for school meal programs to include food that is nutritious and appetizing to children.

"The question now is what to do in order to not just fill bellies, but make sure those children consume healthy and nutritious food -- or at least not contribute to the obesity epidemic," You said in a press release.

Children in rural America are the top users of food assistance programs according to a 2014 report. Rural families may lack access to healthy foods or live far from grocery stores and are increasingly living in poverty. Between 1999 and 2013, the rural child poverty rate increased by 7 percentage points.

Research shows that rural children are more likely than their urban peers to suffer from a range of health issues, like obesity, asthma, or diabetes, which has been partly attributed to a lack of healthy and affordable foods in rural areas.

This post has been updated to include the timeframe of the report.

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