Obesity and School Policy Study Receives $1.3 Million from National Institute of Health

The National Institutes of Health has awarded a $1.3 million to support a study by a team of New York University researchers on how school food policy shapes health, fitness, and academic outcomes among school children.

The project’s principal investigator is Amy Ellen Schwartz, a professor of public policy and economics at the Steinhardt School and the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. Schwartz is director of the NYU Institute of Education and Social Policy, a partnership between Steinhardt and Wagner. In addition to Schwartz, the study, “The Impact of School Food Policy on Childhood Obesity,” includes six other investigators, including NYU faculty members. Brian Elbel, Meryle Weinstein, Sean P. Corcoran, Beth Dixon, Leanna Stiefel, Rogan Kersh.

Obesity among children is one of the most pressing public health problems in the United States. Currently, there are few policy tools to reduce obesity effectively at the population level. However, schools are a prime place to influence this epidemic. The School Food program, including both the school lunch and breakfast programs, serves more than 30 million children every day, making it arguably one of the most important levers available to policymakers for improving the diet of America’s youth.

The research project, which Schwartz will lead, seeks to determine the influence of school‐level food policies, one of the most promising approaches to influence obesity, on Body Mass Index (BMI) and a number of other critical outcomes measures.

The New York City public schools offer a unique laboratory for studying the effects of school food policies on program participation, obesity, and academic achievement. With its 1.1 million students and more than 1,600 schools, this school system exhibits wide variation in food policies and programs across schools, considerable diversity in neighborhood settings and contexts, and a remarkably diverse student body. Specifically, this project will investigate the role school and district food policies have on (a) BMI, (b) meal program participation, and (c) academic outcomes. Data on district policies, school practices, and neighborhood context will be collected via a city‐wide survey of schools, interviews with district personnel, and several school case studies. The project will provide considerable data on the impact of a wide range of school food policies on childhood obesity, through direct observation of BMI. As other school districts and state and federal policymakers struggle with policy approaches to influence childhood obesity, these results will indicate which policies are successful and worth pursuing.

Photo: Amy Ellen Schwartz