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School nutritional standards reduce obesity, but we shouldn't stop there

It's official: Researchers find that school nutrition guidelines help reduce childhood obesity. But schools have untapped potential to do so much more.

A new study published in the journal Pediatrics has anyone in the natural foods industry aflutter with delight.

Using a legal database to examine state laws, researchers correlated states with more stringent school nutrition guidelines (characterized by specific standards rather than general recommendations to have healthier options) and lower obesity rates.

“The study tracked weight changes for 6,300 students in 40 states between 2004 and 2007, following them from fifth to eighth grade,” according to the New York Times. Students who lived in states with stronger nutritional standards gained 2.25 fewer pounds than those with weak or nonexistent laws—a statistically significant amount.

This is the first time the benefits of nutritional laws have been measured, quantified, and widely published.

Cue the celebratory champagne at Bloomberg's offices.

Are school nutrition laws enough?

Adopting school nutritional values is a great starting point. While it didn’t stop pizza from being a vegetable (thank goodness for that dollop of tomato paste!), specific laws limiting fat, sugar and calories prevents schools from solely serving French fries and chicken nuggets for lunch.

This is a commendable and important step. But despite improvements in nutritional standards, I can’t help but lament that we are not fulfilling the power schools have on lifelong eating habits.

Take Todmorden, for example, a small city near Manchester, England. Through a group called Incredible Edible, the town has overhauled its food system, turning nearly every public space into a food-producing garden. The group  works with public institutions to plant fruit orchards and vegetables. Every school in the town is involved in an  agricultural program—older students are even learning aquaponic fish farming.

In Todmorden, the synergy between Incredible Edible, the schools, and the government seems refreshingly simple: not only are they all working towards a common goal, but they also actively support each other in achieving said goal.

“Can you find a unifying language that cuts across age and income and culture that will help people themselves find a new way of living?" asked Incredible Edible co-founder Pam Warhurst in a recent TED Talk. "The answer would appear to be yes. And the language would appear to be food.”

Of course, not every town can be as idyllic as Todmorden. It would be unproductive to assume that Incredible Edible's model would succeed everywhere. But we must understand that the infrastructures of food production and school programs need not be rigid and immobile.

The Pediatric study is good news, and creating specific nutritional guidelines is the first step in reducing obesity. But we can't stop there. We need a paradigm shift in our food system far beyond fat, sugar, and calorie limitations, and schools have untapped potential to lead that revolution.

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