School Lunch and the Battle Against Obesity

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School lunches are getting better and healthier. Most people know they contain less fat, less sugar, fewer calories, and more fiber, but can a good lunch program or a Food PR strategy solve the problem of childhood obesity?

Organizers of a major government study say yes…and no. The HEALTHY study which followed 4600 middle school students from 42 different schools over a three-year period found a decline in obesity among students. The schools who
participated in the HEALTHY study implemented intervention programs targeting four areas: nutrition, physical education, behavior, and communications/social marketing. The study results showed that these changes in nutrition and exercise had a positive impact on boys and girls in a high-risk category – namely, obesity.

Of those who began the program in 6th grade, already obese by definition, 21% were no longer in that category at the completion of 8th grade. Unfortunately the program didn’t achieve its goal to reduce overall rates of obesity among all of the overweight children. By and large there was only a 4% decline. And, strangely, the 4% drop in weight issues was across the board, regardless of schools having participated in specific wellness programs or not.

I take that to mean an awareness of overweight and obesity – and health issues that ensue – is permeating society. School programs are doing their part, leading by example, and helping to educate students, staff, and parents in the area of good nutrition and exercise. The media gets credit too for picking up stories, reporting strategies, and following studies. It hasn’t hurt that first lady–Michelle Obama, is championing the cause against childhood obesity as well.

In 1946, the National School Lunch Act was signed into law by President Harry Truman. Since that time the National School Lunch Program has been subsidizing school lunches for all students and offering free or reduced meals to those who qualify financially. Schools are given cash reimbursements to feed students. And along with government compensation, comes government regulation, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The fast food explosion of the 1970’s and 80’s found families moving away from traditional home-cooking. Children’s taste for burgers, fries, nuggets, and chicken patty sandwiches demanded school lunch menus leave off traditional meals like meatloaf and mashed potatoes in favor of fast-food. Statistics say that childhood obesity doubled, and adolescent obesity has tripled since then. Certainly school lunches didn’t cause this problem, but they may have unwittingly encouraged it.

When the trend toward childhood chubbiness became apparent, wellness programs and healthier meals were instituted in schools across the nation. A traditional lunch program requires schools to serve meals including protein, bread, milk, and 2 fruits or vegetables daily. The goal is to have children eat a healthy, well-balanced meal. Salad bars in school cafeterias and ala carte lines offering healthy choices like fresh fruits are making a difference. Snacks are doled out in calorie controlled packages. Sugar laden soft drinks are banned; replaced by bottled water, flavored water, and sports drinks.

Schools who are feeding their students well, educating about proper nutrition, encouraging healthy eating, and offering the opportunity to make good food choices deserve our praise. One solution to childhood obesity is this: teaching kids to make good choices. In and out of school it’s all about good choices.

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