Sunday, February 21, 2010

Obese Kid Nation: the School Lunch Connection?

Do you know what your kids are eating for lunch at school? I do, but only because they are still young enough that I pack their lunches. But in a few more months, my eldest will be able to eat in the school cafeteria. And what's on offer there is a troubling mishmash of highly processed food and sometimes, a few healthy options.

Since learning that at least 1/4 of our local kids are obese, I've gotten involved in a group that advocates for healthier food in our schools. Partly, I'm doing this for my own kids. I'm also doing it because of all the kids who consider themselves lucky to get a subsidized school lunch and count that free or reduced-price meal as the best one they get all day. And trust me, as a community and as a country, we can and should do better by our kids.

At our local school, concerned parents started a Wellness Committee to work with district officials to get better food at our schools. It has been an uphill battle, despite the fact that district officials seem to agree that our food could be healthier. A combination of tight budgets, bureaucratic inertia, and free food courtesy of the federal government ("commodity food") seems to conspire against serving truly nutritious food. And highly processed food like Hot Pockets and Pizza Sticks (which contain imitation mozzarella, sodium nitrites, preservatives, artificial colors, and partially hydrogenated oils) keep turning up on our lunch menus, despite multiple requests by our group to replace them with healthy options.

Two weeks ago, I participated in a conference call with the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Thomas Vilsack about nutrition in the schools and the Obama administration's policies for a healthier America. A fellow blogger from SVMoms (and Mednauseum) arranged the call. It was eye-opening. Schools in the U.S. provide lunches to 30 million children and breakfast for more than 10 million. Secretary Vilsack pointed out that the federal Childhood Nutrition Act is up for reauthorization this year and that Members of Congress face some tough choices: to increase funds for healthier schools and make cuts elsewhere in the budget, or not.

The Obama administration knows it needs to do better. The Department of Agriculture hired the Institute of Medicine to analyze our school's food. In their report, they noted that the USDA needs to work on:
  • Increasing the amount and variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • Setting a minimum and maximum level of calories
  • Focusing more on reducing saturated fat and sodium
All of the above definitely holds true in our little school district. And a few of us at our school have even (gasp!) asked why the schools need to serve chocolate milk. Would it be the worst thing for kids to have plain milk or water with lunch instead of a sugar or corn syrup-laden drink? The grim truth is that even in healthy Santa Clara County, one in four of our kids are obese or overweight. And for adults? Half. For adult males of color? 70%.

When we were talking to Secretary Vilsack, some of the bloggers on the call pushed him about getting healthier commodity (free) food from the USDA. He basically told us that school districts have to push for it and the government will be responsive. So if we want to tackle obesity among our kids, we have our work cut out for us. We have to ask Congress to reauthorize the Childhood Nutrition Act and increase funding and attention to programs that get more fresh fruits and veggies into school lunches. We have to support the First Lady's new initiative "Let's Move" to get kids moving. And at the local level, we have to meet with and work with our school boards and food service providers to push for healthier food at schools.

So just as our kids need to do, we adults need to embrace "Let's Move". Maybe it will also inspire us to "get moving" on improving what we feed our kids and how we help them be healthy.


Alix said...

I do hope the government will be responsive! It shouldn't be as hard as beating your head against a wall. I was on a nutrition committee at my kids' preschool and it was insane. One teacher even passive-aggressively pasted on the school front door an article entitled, "Why Kids won't eat broccoli." I was furious.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Erica. It's great to have people spreading the word about what's going on in their (our!) school districts. The more parents who get involved and take an active interest in advocating for more wholesome school lunch options, the better.

Soldier on!

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