The designer phrase of the year is “childhood obesity crisis.”
Although crisis may be overstating, the obesity problem is with us. Statistics say that some 17 percent of the children in our schools are obese while another 20 percent or so are overweight.
Obesity is a condition where a person weighs 30 percent more than what is considered their ideal healthy weight. Overweight is the weight range between the ideal weight and that 30 percent mark. Too many of our kids fit into those weight ranges.
Since the word “crisis” is part of the pet phrase, the federal government has stepped in to fix the problem. And they have just the program to make it happen: school lunch. Thus was born the No Hungry Kids Act, or the government mandate on what kids can eat.
Through these mandates, schools are required to feed children healthier and more nutritious lunches with less sodium, more whole grains and a wider selection of fruits and vegetables. In an effort to curb those nasty extra pounds, the government has placed restrictions on how much food children may eat. Children in kindergarten through fifth grade are allowed 650 calories. Sixth through eighth graders get 50 calories more and high school students are allowed 850 calories.
To almost no ones’ surprise, the kids are having their say in the matter. They are refusing to eat these healthy morsels and the garbage cans, for the time being at least, are filling up with healthy school lunches. Piles and piles of fruits and vegetables have been going out with the trash.
School lunch is the natural vehicle for such a program. It has come full circle. The federally funded school lunch began in the 1940s during World War II as an effort to help youth bulk up to become soldiers.
Later it became a way to help the farm cycle. When farmers as a whole had a good year, the prices on farm commodities would go down. These kinds of commodities can be stored well so those in the food industry would purchase in bulk and fill silos with the commodities and save them for the next year. Then the next year, when the commodities were available again, the purchasers would have all they needed.
The government would purchase the excess and fill their silos. To use up this abundance, the food was made available to the school lunch program with a requirement that they were to be used to fill the food guidelines then in place. As a result, lunches included a lot of peanuts and corn products. Later, turkey, cheese and other foods were added. They were required to use two tablespoons of butter in each meal. And now the guidelines have changed.
What is the answer to this conundrum? Does the government know the right answers for our nation’s students or do their parents? It is a hard answer, really, since kids have reached the point that they have. They got their eating habits somewhere.
In theory, at least, given a wide range of choices, the human body will self-direct to choose the foods it really needs over the long term. But the choices we are making as a society do not necessarily bear that out. We are faced with very smart food marketing that makes a lot of things that are not so good for us look very desirable. We have learned habits that say if a little is good, a lot is better.
On the flip side, parents spend a lot of time talking about calories and weight and passing on the importance of such concepts to their children either by design or example. This passes on a lot of misinformation that becomes part of the kids’ mentality and the cycle continues.
The guidelines at the schools are based on medical information and reportedly, some schools across the country are now finding some success pedaling their nourishing treats by laying foods out as something of a buffet. Education helps, too, to show the kids the rationale behind the changes. Armed with information, when the kids feel they have some say in what they choose, they tend to make healthier choices.
Perhaps that is the answer both at school and at home. Personally, I think parents are the best teachers. Parents need to educate themselves with sound materials, quit treating food like the enemy or the reward, and trust themselves. Go for the basics. Then they can help kids find out what will make them feel the healthiest, provide them with choices among those kinds of foods and let them choose. Lay out the vegetables and dips and see what they choose.
Who knows? It could work. It’s worth a try.