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The federal government will spend more than $1 billion this year on nutrition education — fresh carrot and celery snacks, videos of dancing fruit, hundreds of hours of lively lessons about how great you will feel if you eat well.
But an Associated Press review of scientific studies examining 57 such programs found mostly failure. Just four showed any real success in changing the way children eat — or promise as weapons against childhood obesity. “Any person looking at the published literature about these programs would have to conclude that they are generally not working,” said Dr. Tom Baranowski, a pediatrics professor at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine who studies behavioral nutrition. Among the results:
- Last year a major federal pilot program offering free fruits and vegetables to schoolchildren showed 5th graders became less willing to eat them than they had been at the start. Apparently they didn’t like the taste.
- In Pennsylvania, researchers gave prizes to schoolchildren who ate fruits and vegetables. That worked while the prizes were offered, but when the researchers came back seven months later the students had reverted to their original eating habits: soda and chips.
The forces that make children fat “are really strong and hard to fight with just a program in school,” said Dr. Philip Zeitler, a pediatric endocrinologist and researcher who sees “a steady stream” of obese children struggling with diabetes and other medical problems at The Children’s Hospital in Denver. Kate Houston, deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, oversees most federal funds — $696 million this year — spent on childhood nutrition education in this country.
Houston insists the programs are successful. “I think the question here is how are we measuring success, and there are certainly many ways in which you can do so and the ways in which we’ve been able to measure have shown success,” she said. continue reading