School meals are healthier. So why isn’t everything else?
All parents want what is best for their children, and all parents want to see their children succeed. Unfortunately, the childhood obesity epidemic means that about one-third of children and teens are now overweight or obese, putting them at risk for a lifetime of health problems such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and even some cancers. It’s not the type of future any mom wants for her child.
But the future isn’t set. We can still reverse this epidemic and provide a healthier future for kids everywhere — and like so many things, this effort begins at school.
Some children get more than half of their daily calories at school, so what they eat on campus directly impacts their health. And I have good news and bad news about what schools are feeding to our kids.
Since I’m an optimist, I’ll start with the good news: School meals are about to get a lot healthier. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is currently implementing nutrition guidelines for meals that mean schools will soon serve more fruits, vegetables and whole grains while cutting out unhealthy sodium, sugar and fats.
The bad news? Many students can still get their hands on junk food at school. A lot of schools sell unhealthy items such as chips in vending machines, candy at the student store and unhealthy à la carte items in the cafeteria.
Studies show that when schools sell unhealthy snacks and drinks, kids eat less of their lunch and consume more fat, take in fewer nutrients and gain weight. The sale of unhealthy foods outside of school meals also is associated with increases in children’s body mass index.
But like I mentioned earlier, I’m an optimist — and I have some great news to share.
This spring, the USDA is expected to introduce proposed nutritional guidelines for food and beverages sold in schools but outside meals. These guidelines would set minimal nutritional standards for schools to follow when offering foods and drinks to students in vending machines, stores and à la carte lines.
Replacing junk food with nutritious snacks will help kids stay healthy, which will reduce their risk for obesity and the conditions that come with it. That benefits all of us by lowering health care costs and increasing economic productivity.
After the standards for these foods and drinks are in place, parents will be able to be confident that their child’s school is a healthy place to learn. And when kids eat healthy, they are healthy — and being healthy now means a healthier future later on.
Schools aren’t the only place where work needs to be done to combat childhood obesity, of course. But they are an important starting point, and it’s vital we make sure schools serve only what’s best for our children.
Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch is a writer for the website PreventObesity.net, which is building a movement of people dedicated to reversing childhood obesity. You can sign up as a PreventObesity.net Supporter at PreventObesity.net/jointhemovement.