As moms and dads across the country prepare to send their little ones back to school this fall, they can be comforted knowing that the meals their children will be served will be healthier than ever.
But many parents might be shocked to learn that their kids might still be able to get their hands on unhealthy chips, candy, soda and other junk food — and their school could be selling it to them.
New nutritional guidelines being implemented this school year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will increase the number of nutritious whole grains, fruits and vegetables served in school meals, while the amount of unhealthy ingredients such as sugar and sodium will be reduced.
This is a watershed moment for all of us working to reduce childhood obesity. As obesity rates have more than quadrupled in the last four decades — roughly one-third of children and teenagers are now overweight or obese — it is vital that we limit the amount of unhealthy food young people consume. Considering that children and teens get 35 percent to 50 percent of their total daily calories at school, improving the quality of school meals is an important part of the overall effort to reverse obesity.
Our work on school food is not yet complete, however. Many schools still sell unhealthy food and beverages a la carte in the cafeteria, in vending machines or at student stores. These products are often called “competitive foods,” since they compete with meals for students’ buying power.
And unlike school meals, which must now meet nutritional guidelines, there are virtually no national regulations that determine what schools can sell to students in competitive food venues. That means that while schools offer students more healthy fruits and vegetables in the cafeteria for lunch, they can still sell young people junk food such as chips and candy in a vending machine down the hall.
It seems obvious that if we want to make sure that the food our kids eat at school is healthy, we should implement strong nutritional guidelines for all food sold at school.
That’s not just my gut instinct, either.
Research recently published in the journal Pediatrics found that policies that restrict the sale of unhealthy foods and beverages on campus help kids gain less weight. The study found that children and teens in states with strong laws setting strong nutritional guidelines for school-based sales of snacks and drinks gained less weight over a three-year period than those in states without such policies.
Researchers also found that students who were overweight or obese in fifth grade were less likely to remain so by the time they reached eighth grade if they lived in a state with strong policies.
It’s just commonsense. If there are strict nutritional standards for school meals, there should be for all the other food that is sold at school, too.
The USDA has said it plans to create national nutritional standards for snacks and drinks sold in schools. In fact, the agency was expected to release such standards earlier this year, but has yet to do so.
That’s why it’s so important that moms, dads and anyone who cares about the nutritional quality of what young people eat tell the agency to implement nutritional guidelines for school food and beverages sold outside meals.
Obesity puts kids and teens at risk for grownup diseases such as hypertension, Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. That’s why it is so important we do everything we can to bring down our nation’s soaring childhood obesity rates.
We can all celebrate the fact that school meals are healthier — it is definitely a milestone for the health of our country. Now let’s work together to ensure that all school food is healthy, too.
Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch is a senior writer and editor for PreventObesity.net, an online network of people working to reverse childhood obesity.