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The School Front of the Obesity Epidemic

By Jorge E. Bañales

Childhood Obesity: Problems, SolutionsWe all want kids to eat healthy, but, what does that mean?

"Just like everything else in this world, kids have to learn about good food," said Carolyn Dean, medical director of the Nutritional Magnesium Association. "Most children never see fruits or vegetables in their original state and the closest they get is French fries and tomato ketchup for potatoes and tomatoes."

According to the Food Research and Action Center, in Fiscal Year 2009, the National School Lunch Program provided lunch to more than 31.1 million children each day, including 11.1 million breakfast meals.

Many minority children get free or reduced-price lunches and some schools have extended the lunch program over the summer so children from lower-income families get at least one full meal per day. School food is a critical social determinant of their health, because these same children are also particularly affected by obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes.

In 2005, 41 percent of fourth graders were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Only 24 percent of white fourth graders were eligible, while 70 percent of black and 73 percent of Hispanic students qualified. Sixty-five percent of American Indian/Alaska Native and 33 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander fourth graders were also eligible, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Riverside Unified School District (RUSD) is the 15th largest school district in California, with 43,000 students, in 47 schools. The 358-employee Nutrition Services Department provides 34,000 meals per day, and has a $17 million dollar budget. Rodney Taylor is director of RUSD, in California, has been involved in the farm-to-school movement since the beginning.

The Farmers' Market Salad Bar program supplies an all-you-can-eat salad bar lunch to students, giving them access to fresh fruits and vegetables on a daily basis during lunch. The produce for the salad bar is purchased from local farmers. The program has been recognized as a national model for schools and school districts interested in providing greater access to fresh fruits and vegetables to students.

"Schools are in a position to play a very integral role in building communities that support health for all children, simply because many students consume two of their three meals per-day, at school," Taylor said. "Through our nutrition programs, we are well positioned to partner with school principals, teachers, parents, students, and all other agencies and organizations interested in improving our children's health."

For the past two years in Philadelphia, the Common Market, a nonprofit distributor provides local farm fresh food to area children. Common Market has partnered with the School District of Philadelphia to provide farm fresh food to their cafeterias. Common Market started with a pilot project in five schools; it grew to 22 schools the following year and is expected to grow to 50 schools for the 2011-2012 academic year.

"The school lunches are better than ever " said Dr. Keith-Thomas Ayoob, director of the Nutrition Clinic at the Children's Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center and associate clinical professor of Pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. "More school lunches include fresh fruits and vegetables than ever before."

However he said there is no guarantee that children will eat them and, unfortunately, a lot of this food goes to waste. Also, he called the budget for school meals "paltry," adding that school food managers are reluctant to pay for fruits and vegetables that they know will be thrown away.

One way to increase children's hunger, he said, is to have them play first then eat their lunch. And parents can help by getting kids used to eating fruits and vegetables at home so that they are more likely to eat them in school meals because they're familiar with them.

Dean says another obstacle for schools in providing healthy meals is profit.

"They make money off vending machines," she said. "Even the Girl Scouts still sell sugar cookies for their fund-raising, while diabetes soars."

Steve Kelder, co-director of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at The University of Texas School of Public Health said he hopes "this issue will take care of itself with the pending reauthorization of the Healthy School Meals Act Exit Disclaimer."

For quite some time, school lunch has been divided into 'reimbursable' and 'competitive' foods. "Reimbursable foods are those sold to children as a meal and are regulated by the USDA for the quality and quantity of food. Competitive foods are those that can be purchased by students not as a meal, but 'on the side' and are not regulated by the USDA.

"In essence, schools can profit by selling children junk food through the competitive food system," Kelder said. "The real problem with school lunch is the sale of unregulated competitive foods."

Kelder said that, with the authorization of the new Healthy School Meals Act, the USDA will take regulatory control of competitive foods, and new competitive standards will be in place to prohibit the sale of junk food in schools. Otherwise, individual school districts have to choose between serving more profitable junk food to children through competitive foods or acting in the interest of children and limiting access to unhealthy foods.

"Unfortunately, many school district administrators or parents are not fully informed about the competitive foods served at school," Kelder said. "It's not required to post in the cafeteria or online what is served. And when schools sign multi-year contracts with outside contract food service companies, they often fail to reexamine what is happening in their own cafeterias."

Related Readings

Creating Oasis amidst Food Deserts: Strategies for Childhood Obesity Prevention
It Takes More than Fresh Food to Reign in Childhood Obesity
Minority Health and School Food: What's the Link?
National School Lunch Program Fact Sheet [PDF | 113KB]
NSLP Child Nutrition Fact Sheet [PDF | 43KB] Exit Disclaimer
Food Research and Action Center Exit Disclaimer
USDA The National School Lunch Program: Background, Trends, and Issues [PDF | 463KB]
CDC Obesity Rates
Nutrition 101
Portion Distortion Exit Disclaimer
Let's Move

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Content Last Modified: 7/19/2011 10:47:00 AM
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