Friday, March 5, 2010

The Lunchlady Goes to War

Recently, First Lady Michelle Obama has spoken about the dangers of childhood obesity in her new initiative: Let's Move. This program attempts to improve childhood health by targeting the main staple of childhood meals: the school lunch. Under the new initiative, school lunch programs are asked to reduce sugars, fats and salt within 5 years, and increase both whole grains and produce within 10 years.

The focus on school lunches isn't limited to the White House. Across the pond, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has also helped reform the school lunch in an attack against childhood obesity. His program "Feed Me Better" in Greenwich, UK public schools replaced the fast-food style lunches with ones more like home cooking. His efforts have brought him here to the US, with a Food Revolution campaign designed to revamp the food in our public schools. So kids and their school lunches

But what is the link between what kids are eating at school and their weights?

The nutritional requirements of children's lunches are given by the USDA, which also provides sample recipes and menus. An average lunch in my school district is straightforward: proteins are fishsticks, beef patties and turkey dogs. Vegetables are potato rounds, corn, carrots and peas. Dessert is some kind of fruit product, either applesauces, fruit cups or gelatin-molds. The beverages are white, chocolate or strawberry milk.

The Benefit of Stale Bread

On the surface, the USDA menus seem kid-friendly (except for the peas) but there is an aspect of these foods that make it less healthful than what it should be. When food is made at home, from scratch, we use things like common, household items that taste good, but don't hold up for long term storage. So when the cookies get stale, we bake more. Commercially produced food has to withstand transportation and longer shelf-lives, so substitutions are made to keep the food fresh. So while Grandpa's burger-bun recipe calls for plain flour, water and yeast, Grandma's Burger-Buns (TM) have corn solids, corn syrups, vegetable oils and extra sugars to keep the food moist and tasty.

Similar additions are made in kid-favorites like ketchup, spaghetti sauces, and in the flavor packets of prepared spice mixes. They also boost the flavors in non-sweet foods like crackers, as well as sweet foods like yogurts and flavored milks. So even when a child is avoiding the classic junk food like chips and candy bars, fats and sugars appear in the diet. By boosting the amount of basic and unrefined foods like whole grains, fruits and vegetables, there's less room in the diet for high-calorie, low nutrient meals.

Starting in the Cafeteria

Because children spend both breakfast and lunchtimes at school, a key way to improve their diets is to focus on the meals taken there, rather than at home. Mrs. Obama's proposal is backed by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), which also wants to address the socioeconomic links between food and obesity by adding more children to federally-funded lunch programs, and increasing the money invested in these programs to improve the overall diet.

Another target is the advertising and accessibility of junk foods in schools. According to a PBS report in 2000, approximately 98% of high schools had vending machines in schools, and of all schools with vending machines, more than 75% sold soft drinks, while only about 55% sold fruit or vegetable juices. Also, because the schools contract to have the machines, snack-food vendors are allowed to advertise in schools, in exchange for the proceeds off of the vending machine sales. This helps create brand loyalty among the students, so they're more likely to choose the processed snack foods and soft drinks instead of regular foods. This puts lower-income schools at a higher risk, because they're more likely to need the additional revenue from the vending machine sales. Kids in these districts are also more likely to be enrolled in the school's lunch program, so poor food availability has a greater effect on them.

Some school districts, like in New York City, have already taken action by replacing high-fat, sugary snacks in vending machines with lower-fat and sugar treats, and by banning regular bake sales. Other schools, like those in the Los Angeles school districts, have taken stronger measures by banning vending machines altogether. Hopefully, the combined approach of eliminating unnecessary foods and providing better alternatives will reduce the trend towards obesity in the schools.

image is from SpecialKRB: / CC BY-ND 2.0

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