Ethics of Promoting Healthy Food Choices in American Public Schools

In addition to an academic education, schools need to develop good health practices in children. Children spend considerable time at school and consume significant amounts of food during school hours. Thus, developing healthy dietary behavior in school children is important for the prevention of obesity. Though there is a cost to implementing the “healthy food only” regulations in school, promoting healthy diets is eventually economical as it might reduce future medical expenditure. Such regulations conflict with the “freedom of choice of food” of parents, children and school staff and are also against the interests of the food and beverage businesses. However, these steps are justified for the greater common good.

Obesity rates are increasing steadily among children. Childhood obesity is a major predisposing factor for obesity-related diseases in future. Schools provide a good food environment to develop healthy lifestyles in children. It is essential that schools question and discard policies that may harm student health. School breakfast and lunch programs were implemented to prevent malnourishment of students from the lower income brackets. However, with the availability of junk food in school premises, the above program could be jeopardized. Research has proven that students participating in school breakfast programs (healthy food) score better and achieve better attendance than the non-participants. The article’s purpose is “to present a bioethics framework for justifying stricter regulation of school food, specifically to determine whether this type of health promotion in schools is ethically justified”.

* The ethics of imposing food regulations in schools was assessed on the parameters of the following biomedical interventions: (1) autonomy conflict based on “freedom of choice of food” (2) beneficence or social benefits (3) nonmaleficence — creating no harm (4) justice — evenhandedness in evaluating benefits and burdens.
* The ethical basis for future action is proposed on the basis of the findings of the reported literature on the bio-medical interventions.

Results/Key findings
* Children do not have adequate awareness on food choices. As responsible parents do, schools should also encourage the food choices that offer nutritional benefits rather than empty calories which cause harm.
* Availability of junk foods in school premises competes with the intake of nutritionally sound school meals. This thereby offsets the core intention of national school lunch and breakfast programs.
* Nutritional food does not cause harm whereas junk food does. The argument that children do not prefer food with higher nutritional standards has been proven wrong. Research has shown that children do prefer healthy food if a variety of fresh healthy food choices is available.
* Although all children will benefit by the inclusion of healthy food in schools, children from the lowest socio-economic strata stand to benefit the most. The sale of junk food benefits certain food and beverage companies and generates revenue for the school. However, “doing harm, especially to the most vulnerable children can never be justified”.

Next steps/Shortcomings
It is possible for the school districts to impose restrictions on the sale of junk foods within the school premises. However, these agencies have not been made aware of the impact of intake of junk food on a child’s health. Therefore, educating these authorities should be the next step forward.

There is no justification to benefit certain food and beverages companies at the cost of children’s health. Curtailing of competitive junk food offerings will automatically induce students to participate in meal programs and will in fact increase the revenue for the food service department. School meal programs also address social inequities by giving underprivileged students an equal opportunity to become productive and healthy citizens. Children from low income families are already under psychosocial stress and consumption of empty calories at school will only worsen their situation. However, access to healthful foods may diminish the effects of these stresses and help in their development. In a nutshell, it is an ethical obligation of school authorities to provide only healthy food in the school premises for the betterment of children and future national health status.

For More Information:
The Ethical Basis for Promoting Nutritional Health in Public Schools in the United States
Publication Journal: Preventing Chronic Disease, September 2011
By Patricia B. Crawford; Wendi Gosliner; University of California, Berkeley

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