Why We Need to Make School Lunches Healthier

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For some reason that I’ll probably never understand, first lady Michelle Obama has repeatedly been criticized by the press and blocked by lawmakers in her efforts to make school lunches healthier in this country. By no means do I think government should be dictating diet to people; however, nobody wins when we continue feeding our kids lackluster lunches comprised of pizza, french fries, and other unhealthy options.


Childhood obesity begets adult obesity, along with associated health problems like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, pre-diabetes, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and more, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Some schools have claimed that healthier governmental standards, such as increased whole grains and decreased sodium, have been difficult to implement because students complained they were still hungry or didn’t like the texture of certain foods. Others note that requiring students to take a fruit or vegetable with every lunch only leads to healthier trash cans, as that is where the fruits and vegetables often wind up. For some schools, switching to whole grains has been a challenge.


And yet, other schools have observed that while students weren’t happy at first, they have gradually adapted to the new standards and now enjoy the fruits, salads, vegetables, and other healthier alternatives available for purchase. Transition isn’t easy for any of us, and it can be particularly tricky for kids. When the companies peddling unhealthy foods lose money, hire lobbyists, and get lawmakers involved, it doesn’t make that process any easier.


Michelle Obama and others are repeatedly forced to defend and explain why they want to promote better eating habits among the youth in this country and prevent childhood obesity. Unfortunately, in many households, a healthy school lunch might be the only worthwhile food the kids eat all day. Fortunately, this provides an opportunity to expand their culinary horizons, if just once a day, and maybe even take some of these inadvertent nutrition lessons home.


Critics say that healthier school lunches can’t, won’t, shouldn’t, don’t work. But one community in New York City has been making it work for the past 12 years. The Bilingual Head Start program at the East Harlem Council for Human Services, where I am on the board, has been making strides against childhood obesity in its mostly Hispanic community by shifting everybody’s attitude–children, parents, and grandparents–about food.


Among other activities, the program offers a community garden where children help grow, harvest, learn about, and cook fruits and vegetables. The center has eliminated sugary juice drinks and sodas and has created a “Sugar-Free Zone” that discourages vendors from selling sweets nearby. Children are served organic milk, cut-up fresh fruit, and cooked dried beans. They–and thus their families–are taught how to adopt healthier eating habits from the ground up by having a nutritionist on site to offer basic, accessible lessons. Miraculously, they have done all of this and more while staying within budget.


As Rita Prats-Rodriguez, the program’s director, wrote in a 2010 article in the New York Amsterdam News, “To beat childhood obesity, we must always be ready to try new things.” The residents of East Harlem were ready for this significant change in their children’s diet–healthy eating! Not only have they embraced new eating habits, but they are making strides against obesity, too: Between 2010 and 2012, the average body mass index of children in the program declined by more than 7 percent.


When any of us seeks to make a change on any scale, support from friends, family, colleagues, teachers, and the community is key. If students don’t feel as if the people around them support healthier eating habits–at lunch, or elsewhere–then they may not feel as encouraged to make substantive change.


From my perspective, we have two choices: offer our children nutritious foods or live with the fact that we might be contributing to certain illnesses, rather than preventing them.



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