Critical Literature Review (Model)

Title: School Lunches and Student Health

        There is no question that the general health of most Americans is less than ideal. In spite of the fact that we are a “health-obsessed” and “body-conscious” culture, the United States has one of the highest obesity rates among first-world countries. In 2010 the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act was passed, and many thought it was a major step toward helping children eat better in public school, and also become better educated about the benefits of healthy food choices. Yet in spite of this and other smaller-scale local efforts in many school districts across the nation, the U.S. continues to allow school children to eat dangerously unhealthy food in public schools. A critical evaluation of the research on this subject reveals some of the attempts that have been made to remedy these failing school lunch programs as well as some of the risks that may result if such programs fail.

The Literature:

        Studies have repeatedly shown that schools are not offering healthy choices for kids. From elementary schools to high schools, the majority of food options are high in fat, cholesterol, sodium, and calories, while low in protein, vitamins, and minerals. One of the major problems in many schools is the presence of vending machines. In the article “School Lunch and Snacking Patterns Among High School Students,” Neumark-Sztainer, et al study the correlation between the access students have to vending machines and their health. The authors surveyed students from twenty schools and studied the their patterns of using the vending machines. They ultimately conclude that schools that implement policies that decrease students’ access to vending machines reduce the amount of unhealthy food students consume, which, in turn, decreases the likelihood of obesity and other health problems.

        Michelle Obama and some members of the U.S. Senate attempted help schools with such health-conscious policy when they supported the 2010 Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA). The 84-page HHFKA is an extensive set of policies that ranges from providing affordable or free breakfasts to all children, to demanding that the U.S. Department of Agriculture provide nutritional information about all school meals to families and the greater public, to offering grants to schools in order to purchase locally grown food from small farms.

        The many provisions of the national HHFKA have been slow to take effect in many small towns and places across the country, but in the meantime, researchers find that there are small successes happening with some state programs. In “School Junk Food Laws May Curb Kids’ Obesity,” medical journalist Lindsey Tanner reports on a series of studies that track the impact of state policies that regulate school lunch and snack options on children’s health over a period of five years. While researchers in charge of the studies are quick to note that their results are still relatively inconclusive, Tanner notes that medical experts and many statisticians tracking children’s health issues view them as optimistic. That is, though there is not yet enough evidence to directly link these programs with improved adolescent health, the initial results suggest there may be soon.

"Traditional" Lunch Programs:

        Public school lunches (and often breakfasts and snacks served in schools) are consumed regularly by approximately 78% of children in the U.S.1 According to the U.S. Department of Public Health, approximately 67% of U.S. children aged 6-18 are considered overweight or obese. For over a decade, health and nutrition experts have been studying the correlation between the foods served in schools and the health of the children who consume it. In spite of the fact that the USDA has published dietary recommendations and standards for the food industry, much of the food served in schools is considered sub-par.

        Neumark-Sztainer et al. assert that “adolescents' dietary intakes are not consistent with national recommendations” (citation). Their study documents the menus and eating habits of students in twenty public high schools across the U.S. Though their study was conducted according to rigorous academic research methods and was published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, its language and style make their findings accessible to the average reader. For instance, they present their data as a prose narrative, organized clearly with headings that guide readers through their objectives, methodology, data, and findings. The study examines “traditional” lunch programs and helps establish a baseline to assess improvements and remedies.

        In contrast, Lindsey Tanner’s article for the Associated Press, “School Junk Food Laws May Curb Kids’ Obesity,” looks not at the lunch programs themselves, but at the health problems that have been linked directly to them. She reports that students who regularly consumed school lunches and snacks high in fat and sodium for more than three consecutive years of elementary school were 13% more likely to be overweight after reaching puberty than students eating a healthier diet (source). Her article was syndicated in a number of national news sources, including ABC News and the Los Angeles Times, and is written for a general audience. Yet the article has a professional tone, as Tanner uses sophisticated and even sometimes academic diction (e.g. “proximal factors”), and sometimes discusses complex concepts such as “concentric spheres of influences” (source).

New Lunch Programs:

        In response to traditional, unhealthy lunch programs, there have been many attempts to improve the nutritional content of food served in schools. Perhaps the most widely known and recent program is the 2010 Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA). Though many aspects of the law have been made very marketable and popular by First Lady Michelle Obama’s public Let’s Move! campaign, the actual legislative document that is HHFKA is a much more complicated text. Like most government documents, the text is divided into sections and subsections with many titles, subtitles, articles, and labeled paragraphs, making this a very difficult document to read and easily comprehend. Yet the content of the law includes very specific steps and programs that are expected to improve the quality of food in schools across the country. There are also detailed timelines that outline benchmarks for implementing changes and new standards of food quality, menus, and nutritional information.

        The HHFKA responds directly to the kinds of problems identified in Neumark-Sztainer et al., specifically concerning the poor quality of the food currently available in my schools. Likewise, HHFKA addresses the general health of America’s school-aged children by legislating not only improvements in menus and foods, but also by increasing standards for physical activity and education about nutrition and health in public schools. Thus, in many ways, HHFKA responds directly to the problems identified by Neumark-Sztainer et al.

        Like HHFKA, “School Junk Food Laws May Curb Kids’ Obesity” by Lindsey Tanner focuses on solutions to the problems of public school lunches, and also discusses various solutions. But unlike HHFKA, Tanner’s article is not actually one of these solutions itself, but instead is an overview of a few that have had success at the state level. Tanner’s article is also somewhat connected to Neumark-Sztainer et al., as it summarizes some of the problems with traditional schools lunches and the related health problems associated with them.

The Risks of Doing Nothing:

        What unites these three texts most significantly is how they each, in their own way, addresses the risk of doing nothing about the traditional, unhealthy lunch programs in our public schools. It is important to note that none of these texts sets out to explicitly address the possible risks or outcome if we do not improve adolescents’ food choices, but they all suggest them nonetheless.

        In presenting the findings of numerous new lunch programs, Lindsey Tanner is able to show the progress that has been made by making relatively small changes in just a short period of time. So, we may infer that without these changes and improvements, students continuing on with the unhealthy, traditional school lunch programs might experience increased health problems. Similarly, the HHFKA offers a detailed and lengthy plan for improving many aspects of school lunch programs and, in turn, students’ health in the U.S. The law includes specific information about the benefits that are projected for each part of the legislation. For instance, in demanding increased physical activity in schools, the law states that this will “significantly improve the general health and well-being of young Americans” (source). Finally, in Neumark-Sztainer et al. we see the most explicit evidence of what happens to students who only have access to unhealthy foods. The study concludes with a list of the health problems that appear more frequently in adolescents who eat high calorie, high fat, high sodium diets over a span of years. Clearly, if changes are not made, the health of our students will continue to deteriorate.

        Together, these three texts offer a glimpse of how the traditional school lunch programs in this country have failed the students. Each takes a very different aspect of this issue as its focus, but they all share the common purpose of informing the audience--the American public--about the dangers of a poor diet for children. Likewise, together they provide some sense of hope for a better lunch program and a healthier lifestyle as well.


Some statistics and information in this essay were made up and may not be real. Your essays should only contain real data and information.

Prepared By
Katie Rodgers
University of California, Davis

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