In living rooms and lunch rooms, in meeting halls and school kitchens, there’s a quiet revolution going on. “Parents are discovering what their kids are eating for lunch and they’re horrified,” says Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and author of What to Eat (North Point Press). What’s more, they’re taking action. “I see it as a major national movement,” says Nestle.
The action is inspired not only by the age-old desire to get kids to eat healthfully but also by the childhood obesity epidemic that’s alarming parents and experts alike. Our hooked-on-tech kids are exercising less and eating more of the wrong things -- a potentially dangerous mix. Amazingly, some of that bad eating is happening in a place you’d think would know better: school. Kids are moving through the lunch line and ending up with chips, cookies, and soda on their trays where there should be fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and milk or 100 percent fruit juice.
As awareness of child nutrition problems grows, there has been some progress. Just last spring three top soft-drink companies voluntarily agreed to remove sugary drinks from school cafeterias and vending machines. Congress recently passed the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act, which calls on the USDA to update its decades-old standard for drinks and snack foods sold with school lunches.
Congress also passed a school wellness policy that must be implemented this fall. The bill says that schools participating in the National School Lunch Program must set goals for nutrition education, physical activity, food served, and other ways of promoting student wellness. Unfortunately, the bill has no teeth. “It leaves it up to the school districts to decide how they’re going to do it and gives no additional funding and no enforcement,” says Nestle.
Clearly, more change is necessary -- especially given that rewards are relatively quick and measurable. According to one recent survey, when parents get involved with what’s served in cafeterias, kids are about 25 percent less likely to be overweight. “Our school system is thinking about weighing every child each year and giving the schools an ‘obesity index,’” says Emily Paulsen, the Bethesda, Maryland, mother of Eli, 10, and Maya, 6. “I think the money would be much better spent on improving the quality of school lunches.”
Responding to the growing government pressure, some districts have already begun redesigning their menus to include healthier foods. And they’ve also banned soda and reduced prices of healthy items to encourage kids to buy them. But just as often it is concerned parents like you who have initiated change -- and the climate for improving school lunches has never been better.