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School breakfast, lunch, summer programs and subsidized meals for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) are vital to the health and well-being of the nation’s children and adolescents, despite claims of links to obesity, according to an updated report.

Approximately one in six infants, children and adolescents live in homes that experience limited food supply, and half of all children participate in at least one nutrition assistance program during their first five years of life, according to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), which last week published an updated position paper on nutrition assistance for children to review the program’s effectiveness.

“Without these programs, millions of infants, children and adolescents in the U.S. may not reach their full developmental potential,” says the report, written by Jamie Stang, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota and Cynthia Taft Bayerl, nutrition coordinator at the nutrition physical activity and obesity program, Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

The findings appear to be in direct opposition to those presented in March at the American College of Cardiology by researchers at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor, which found that more than one in three middle school students who regularly eat school lunches are obese or overweight because of high fat and sugar content. The findings also show that students who consume school lunches are more likely to have high LDL “bad” cholesterol levels than kids who bring lunch from home, according to WebMD.

“The school environment is an excellent opportunity we should not be missing to teach kids to make healthy choices, both in terms of food and exercise,” Elizabeth Jackson, M.D., assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Health System, told WebMD.

Recent data show that while an estimated 30.6 million U.S. students eat school lunches, only 6 percent of school lunch programs meet the requirements established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For example, the average sodium content was twice that recommended, and 80 percent of schools exceeded rules to keep fat to less than 30 percent of total calories.

Nevertheless, the ADA encourages nutrition assistance programs be made available to all eligible children and adolescents. To help combat obesity, school systems can take advantage of the ADA’s registered dietitians and dietetic technicians, who are uniquely qualified to develop, implement and evaluate nutrition assistance programs, the study says.

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