Columbia Public Schools adding more variety to school lunches

A Missourian file photo of Columbia Public School students searching through the salad bar during lunch. CPS requires students to choose at least one fruit or vegetable before checking out of the lunch line. According to new data collected by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, youth obesity rates in Missouri have held steady in recent years, neither increasing or decreasing.

Data released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on Thursday shows the obesity rate among people aged 10 to 17 has held steady in recent years.

The obesity rate for this age group is 12.5%, or 73,800 people, which is neither an increase nor a decrease, according to the data. Missouri ranks fifteenth lowest in the nation for obesity rates in this age group.

The data also show that black and Hispanic youth are disproportionally affected by obesity in comparison to white and Asian youth. Black youth have an obesity rate of 22.2% and Hispanic youth a rate of 19.0%. This is compared to the rate of 11.8% among white youth and 7.3% among Asian youth.

Mississippi has the highest rate of youth obesity at 25.4%.

“It’s definitely positive. You have to stop (obesity) first in order to reverse it,” said Laina Fullum, director of nutrition services for Columbia Public Schools. “Since we’ve been on an uptick, for it to just halt is amazing.”

Now, she said, she hopes the rate begins to decline.

Julie Benard, a general pediatrician at MU Health who focuses on pediatric obesity, also sees it as a good sign that the numbers have stayed the same.

“While obviously we would love to see these numbers start to decrease and have less and less children that are struggling with the disease of obesity, I think that this is a really great first step, especially for the state of Missouri,” she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health risks of childhood obesity can include:

  • High blood pressure and cholesterol, which can lead to cardiovascular disease.
  • Increased risk of impaired glucose tolerance, insulin resistance, and Type 2 diabetes.
  • Breathing problems, including asthma and sleep apnea.
  • Joint problems and musculoskeletal discomfort.
  • Fatty liver disease, gallstones and gastro-esophageal reflux, also known as heartburn.

The CDC also says that childhood obesity can have psychological effects, such as anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, as well as social problems like bullying.

Future health problems associated with childhood obesity include an increased risk of serious health conditions, such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and cancer.

Both obesity and disease risk factors are likely to be more severe if one has obesity in childhood, according to the CDC.

Benard works with Tigers on Track, an MU wellness clinic that specializes in helping children and families develop healthier habits.

When children come into the clinic, they meet with a medical provider, dietitian, physical therapist and social worker, Benard said.

“That just really aims to address lots of different components of what might go into a child carrying extra weight,” Benard said.

Benard said Tigers on Track sees a wide range of positive results. Some kids don’t lose any weight and some lose significant amounts, but most feel an improvement in their overall well-being, she said. For example, a lot of participants see an increase in exercise tolerance and healthy eating habits, like drinking more water or eating more fruits and vegetables.

The Columbia School District has several programs to help students eat healthier. The district provides reimbursable meals to students that Fullum says are “heavily regulated” by the Department of Agriculture. The meals must include certain components, including grains, meat or protein, fruits, vegetables and milk. For breakfast and lunch, student meals must contain at least three of these components but may also add more.

“We are required to look at saturated fat, fat, trans fat, sodium, overall calories,” Fullum said. “We are also required to have color in our menus. So, dark green and red orange vegetables and whole grains.”

Fullum said students are still reluctant to shift to healthier foods.

“We still get some pushback,” she said.

For example, when it comes to bread, pasta and rice, students generally want white. The schools provide students with whole grains, and that takes some getting used to.

“We’ve gotten better with time because we’ve been doing these regulations for a long time now,” she said.

The biggest challenge students face to eating healthy can be access at home.

“They’re not in charge of their grocery purchasing typically, so if a family doesn’t have enough money or a family chooses not to purchase healthier foods — healthier foods cost more — that’s a challenge, not only for home, but for us,” Fullum said.

Fullum said no single entity can solve the problem of youth obesity.

“It’s going to have to be a district-wide effort which I feel like we’re starting to see more and more of.”

Benard said it is going to take work on all different levels, including at the statewide level.

“Statewide, just supporting policies that promote healthier eating, better food availability for everyone, including access to fruits and vegetables, would be a really really good step,” she said. “Trying to really get the message out about just healthier eating in general — not promoting things like soda or other sugar-sweetened beverages and making sure kids have safe places to play to promote physical activity are all things that the state could be doing to be helpful with this.”

  • Public Health and Safety reporter, Fall 2019. Studying magazine editing. Reach me at, or in the newsroom at 573-882-5700.

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