School Food Under Scrutiny as Childhood Obesity Rises

Montclair State University and Local School District to Study Cafeteria Food

MONTCLAIR, NJ -- Concerned over childhood obesity, Montclair State University and a northern New Jersey school district are joining in a study of one school's cafeteria food with the goal of inspiring healthier food service practices statewide.

Montclair State will help the Cedar Grove School District in Essex County find out exactly what students at the Memorial Middle School are eating -- and how much they're eating -- in a scientific analysis of nutritional value and portion size led by the University's Department of Health and Nutrition Sciences.

"This study will enable us to assess the nutritional value of our food and make any adjustments necessary to insure a healthier menu," said Cedar Grove Superintendent of Schools Gene Polles. "Beyond that, we hope the discoveries made here will help other school leaders make informed, practical policy decisions to improve the quality of cafeteria food around the state."

The prevalence of obesity in children is increasing at an alarming rate in the United States. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the prevalence of overweight and obese children and adolescents has doubled in the U.S. over the past two decades.

Many school districts have responded by banning sodas and limiting access to candy vending machines. The state, meanwhile, has developed a Model School Nutrition Policy to establish nutritional guidelines for meals and snacks.

Unlike studies that rely on menus, labels and published nutritional statistics, Montclair State and the Cedar Grove District will analyze the actual nutritional worth of food coming from the cafeteria.

Charles Feldman, the University professor directing the research, said the nutritional value of food on the plate can be far different from what labels say. Cooks may add in things, such as additional butter or oil, that can change results, and food preparation techniques can rob food of vitamins. One recent study of hospital food conducted by Feldman found the nutrient quality, as measured by Vitamin C levels, fell 86 percent by the time meals reached patients.

"Substantial nutrient loss can occur in food preparation, especially in large food service operations," said Feldman. "Our team knows of no studies analyzing the nutrient content of the foods children are actually eating."

The Montclair State researchers are also interested in examining the total fat, trans fat and saturated fat in the foods served to children and comparing it against USDA guidelines and the state's Model School Nutrition Policy.

In addition, researchers will measure portion sizes, something Feldman said other studies often overlook, and observe kitchen practices from food purchasing, to holding procedures to processing.

The research is being funded by the University's Department of Health and Nutrition Sciences, and by the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

For further information, please contact the University Office of Marketing and Communications at (973) 655-4333.

Montclair State University

Montclair State is New Jersey's second largest university. It offers the advantages of a large university--a comprehensive undergraduate curriculum with a global focus, a broad variety of superior graduate programs through the doctoral level, and a diverse faculty and student body--combined with a small college's attention to students.

Released 11/7/2007