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~Editor's note: As a mother of three, pediatric clinician and public health advocate, Aliya Hussaini brings a unique and compelling point of view  to the conversation about the need to design schools to be environments where the healthy choice is the easy choice.  

A 2012 study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation argues that we need to expand the timeframe for evaluating benefits of public health interventions to 25 years. Whenever I review the study, I can see the rolling eyes. Our “I need it yesterday” nation has a hard time supporting any public health effort that takes longer to pan out than an episode of [insert favorite HBO show here.] We want the quick fix and we want it now.

Cafeteria Kid | MomsRising.org

A mom’s frustration

This impulse toward immediate gratification is what tanked my efforts to provide my daughter’s extracurricular class with healthier snack options. I’m a physician who works on public health initiatives for a private foundation. I’m all about programs that tie education and health together. So, I proposed a pilot program to the school’s administration. As part of the pilot, the class agreed to let me bring healthier snacks to the kindergarten students. This worked for three weeks, with rave reviews from kids and parents alike. The principal was on board, and even agreed to send home a letter I wrote. The letter included the reasons for the change plus healthy tips to try at home.

But then the kindergarten teachers heard the upper classes were getting pizza--you know, for that meal between lunch and dinner that happens at 2:30 pm-- and revolted because they wanted pizza, too.

The administration faced two options:

  1. Deal with the teachers who felt deprived and explain the importance of an initiative that has the potential to influence on these kids’ future eating habits and health.
  2. Please people in the short term.

I won’t spell the story out in full detail; let’s just say that it wasn’t long before everybody got pizza.

The real tradeoff

To be sure, kids get hungry, teachers deserve their perks, and doing the true cost-benefit analysis of food choice is hard for school administrators and everyone else. Moreover, unhealthy, tempting foods are everywhere. Highly processed and high calorie foods are often stuffed into school vending machines and readily available at snack counters often at low (apparent) cost.

What’s one more pizza party?

The reality is that calorie-busting junk food that costs $3 today tallies up to $147 billion dollars per year of medical care costs among overweight and obese patients. How’s that for cost benefit?

Our kids spend so much of their time in school. The new USDA Nutritional Standards for School Meals and Snacks won’t have immediate, traceable health benefits. But creating environments where healthy choices are easier will pay off in the long term. Both as a doctor and a mom, I hope that our quick fix nation can get beyond the predictable complaints about kids who won’t eat their veggies, cinch our belts and stay the course.

This post is part of the National School Lunch Week with Healthy Food! A MomsRising Blog Carnival. Take a moment to read and comment on these thoughtful blogs, then tell us your story. Our stories are powerful and are what led administrators to set these rules in place.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation’s blog.


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