This post briefly reviews Stephen D. Perry, “Comparison of Nutritional Intake of Home School Children and Public School Children: A Comparison Study” (M.S. Thesis, 2008) [available fulltext here]
Perry, a lecturer in Food Science at the University of Kentucky, argues that there is a real difference in food consumption between homeschooled students and those who attend public schools.
Perry begins by grounding his study in the growing concern over the dramatic increase in childhood obesity in the United States. He gives a brief history of school lunch programs, noting that the trend in recent decades toward increased a la carte options has generally permitted children to eat more, unhealthy food. Governments are increasingly trying to limit caloric intake at school by reducing choice. Kentucky introduced stringent new guidelines limiting portion size and especially access to soft drinks and junk food through vending machines in 2005. Homeschooled children, however, are free from such guidelines. Do their consumption habits differ from their schooled peers?
To find out Perry obtained a sample of 112 children age 7-11, 65 of whom were homeschooled and 47 of whom attended public schools. These students were recruited on a volunteer basis, not randomly. This dietary study is part of a larger study of these children that examines patterns of physical activity.
For seven days students kept a food intake journal, recording the type and weight of everything they ate and drank. The journals were then assessed using the Nutrition Data System for Research (NDSR) Database.
Perry found that while both groups had a similar diet, the homeschoolers ate more of everything–more fat, more calories, more protein, more sugar, more fiber, etc. BOTH groups ate more than the U.S. RDA for all categories except fiber (and fiber of course is the one category where eating more than the RDA is good for you). Strangely, however, both groups ate fewer than the recommended daily number of calories.
The results surprised Perry, who had hypothesized that there would be no difference between the two groups. In his discussion Perry speculated that the increasingly regulated school environment may have contributed to the lower levels of consumption among public schoolers, and he notes that homeschoolers can eat as much as their parents permit.
The real problem with this study, and Perry admits it at the end of his thesis, is that its sample is almost all white and middle class, for both groups. The slight difference he found between homeschoolers and public schoolers here is interesting, but it is insignificant compared to differences across racial and class lines. Another factor that he doesn’t mention is region. Obesity rates vary widely by region, with the south consistently ranking as the fattest part of the country. This study’s sample of middle class, mostly white volunteers from Kentucky thus has limited generalizability.
Nevertheless, it is rather interesting that Perry’s homeschoolers out eat their public school peers. It will be even more interesting to see how these results line up with the other part of the study–physical activity. Do these homeschoolers get more or less physical activity than these public schoolers? I’ll be waiting for the answer, and when it comes out, I’ll be sure to report it here.