Michelle Obama's food for thought
First Lady Michelle Obama, whose "Let's Move!" program has focused the national spotlight on the need for us to help our children be healthier, now wants schools to change the way they are feeding our children. In an op ed piece published today in The Washington Post, Mrs. Obama urges Congress to pass the Child Nutrition Bill to "bring fundamental change to schools and improve the food options available to our children." Good for her.
It makes me wince to think of the foods that children are served at school. I speak at schools often and sometimes share lunch with the students. I have eaten everything from pizza rolls to tacitos to chicken nuggets. Though there are vegetables and fruit, many times those offerings are canned, not fresh--hardly good for you food.
With studies showing how much nutrition affects children's ability to perform in school, it has always baffled me why such awful foods are served. The situation is especially bad for children whose families are economically disadvantaged. The whole free and reduced lunch program is based on the premise that many children might not eat a good meal except at school. That is why it is so important for the breakfasts and lunches that they eat there be healthy, nutritious meals.
Some time ago, I called the head nutritionist at my son's school to discuss the menu. Like many kids, he wanted to buy lunch every day. (Carrying a lunch box was considered uncool.) She was very nice. She admitted that many of the meals they served were not nutritious. She also told me that awareness about the need for school meals to be more nutritious has increased at the same time school budgets have been stretched thin. As any shopper knows, eating healthy costs more and she said most school districts struggle with trying to pay for food the same way they struggle with other costs. She also said that nutritionists have to balance healthiness with taste so the children will eat the food. A cheeseburger tastes better than a salad to someone who is not accustomed to eating healthy foods, she said.
I took a look at some other school districts' menus and found that most were similar, like Miami and Chicago. Others, like Los Angeles, offered more nutritious foods, like whole wheat buns on sandwiches and several fruit/veggie choices each day. Seattle public schools offer pizza each day, but also a salad and an organic yogurt.
Some local schools have taken steps to improve what they are feeding their students. Dr. Marian White-Hood, director of academics and accountability at the See Forever Maya Angelou Public Charter School, said last year the agency contracted with a company called Revolution Foods to provide students with organic meals and snacks. Fruits include kiwi, tangerines, plums and nectarines, favorites for the students. Meals are packaged attractively to make them more appetizing and students and faculty eat from the same offerings, she said.
"We know that, especially for students who are not likely to have breakfast in the morning or dinner the night before, that it is huge for them to get foods from the basic food groups for lunch," White-Hood said. "It is important that their meals focus on them receiving some type of protein, vitamin D through cheese and milk and some type of juice...These foods are important for [physical] development, but also for brain function. We're talking about retention of information, comprehension and synthesis of information."
Michelle Obama said in The Washington Post that the Child Nutrition Bill "will set higher nutritional standards for school meals by requiring more fruits, vegetables and whole grains while reducing fat and salt" and "will help eliminate junk food from vending machines and a la carte lines." Why we ever allowed sodas, candy bars and chips in schools anyway is beyond me, but I'm hopeful that the legislation will pass to remove them. I am also looking forward to foods like braised collards replacing boiled canned corn on children's lunch trays.
My son's pediatrician sent our family to a nutritionist two years ago. She wanted him to learn how to eat healthier early--and us to change the way we were eating--in an effort to help him stay healthy as he ages. It was one of the best life lessons he ever had. He saw a four-year old fast-food restaurant hamburger that, though hard, looked very much like the ones he often asked for. The nutritionist explained the burger had not rotted because of the preservatives in it. He hasn't asked to go that restaurant since that day.
Our children can learn to reinvent their diets and be healthier as adults than we are. They just need the opportunity. Kudos to the First Lady for leading the charge.
Avis Thomas-Lester| August 2, 2010; 9:31 AM ET Save & Share:
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