Our Kids Face More Chronic Illnesses Unless We Change What They Eat at School

One-third to one-half of children born since 2000 will acquire Type 2 diabetes in their lifetime. Many others will face chronic obesity-related health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, asthma and breast cancer.

If present trends hold, our children will be the first in the nation’s history not to live longer than their parents according to the National Institute of Health and school lunches are contributing to the problem. There are a number of school systems, however, that have successfully changed the way our kids eat.

Schools Lunches: Unwrap-and-Heat High Calories and Low Nutrition

The best description for school lunch food is “fast-food” said pediatrician AyalaLaufer Cahan MD. “Overall, it’s salty, sweet and fatty; the meat is breaded and highly processed – even the fruit and vegetables aren’t fresh for the most part. Most of the schools have no kitchens and just unwrap and heat foods,” she said.

The school meals, however, are not the only problem. There are also the food and beverages sold in the cafeteria or vending machines which make up a big part of what kids actually eat while they’re in school.

Kids spend half their waking hours in school and consume half of their daily calories while on campus. Changing school food is critical in the effort to combat obesity.

Communities Are Finding Ways to Improve School Lunches

From the Food Network Star Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign to Chicago’s Healthy Schools Campaign, there are a number of nation-wide and local efforts to improve how our kids eat.

Cook for America™, founded by Kate Adamick, JD and Chef Andrea Martin, LLC, focuses on training and empowering school food service personnel to provide healthy, cooked-from-scratch school meals through five-day culinary boot camps. Offered nation-wide, they are now running a series of boot camps in Colorado.

“We use a lot of culinary language.We move into knife skills.We give them French terms to understand what they are actually doing.We do basic cooking techniques and put them in chef whites.We had kids walk by the classroom the other day and they said, “Oh, look at all the chefs in the room. So, we start to give them a sense of identity,” said Martin.

They also teach them “stealth health”, i.e. how to hide the vegetables so the kids will eat them; for example, blending vegetables in the spaghetti sauce or adding pureed squash to the macaroni and cheese. “The issue is not that kids won’t eat it.The issue is, the adults think the kids won’t eat it.And it is almost universal that we see the kids really do eat it,” said Adamick.

Ann Cooper, author of Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children, along with Martin, Adamick and Alice Waters, transformed the Berkeley, California school lunch program from “100 percent of the food arriving in plastic, reheated in plastic, and served to the kids in plastic,” to a program that includes:

  • Salad bars in all schools
  • Removal of 95% of the processed foods
  • Hormone- and antibiotic-free milk
  • Fresh fruit and vegetables served daily
  • Most foods made from scratch
  • Organic or whole wheat rolls
  • 50% of rice, brown
  • Majority of food purchased locally
  • Natural and grass fed hamburgers and hotdogs

Needs Parents to Help Make It Happen

On August 4th,Congress passed The Child Nutrition Bill which allocates $4.5 billion over a decade to support school cafeterias and introduce new standards for food sold in schools, including vending machines.

The impact from this, however, will take time, and it’s not enough. Schools can meet the program requirements for school lunches in any way they choose – as long as nutrition satisfies the federal guidelines. The National School Lunch Program is implemented on a national level and administered on a state level. Local school authorities make decisions on the specific foods and meals prepared and served.

Improving school lunch programs will need to be done at the local level and it will take more than just the school cooks to make it happen.

If you want to improve the school lunch program in your district, chances are there is a way. Two good resources for starting are Ann Cooper’s book Lunch Lessons which gives readers the tools to transform the way children everywhere interact with food. Another is Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign which outlines steps to success for parents, schools, the community, elected officials, kids, community leaders and chefs.

Cooper says school cafeterias have $2.40 per day to spend on each kid – 70 percent of which goes to payroll and overhead. That leaves 72 cents to spend on ingredients. So it takes more than what most schools have budgeted to improve school lunches but it can be done.

The Berkeley program is a partnership among the Berkeley Unified School District, the Center for Ecoliteracy, and the Chez Panisse Foundation. Colorado schools are receiving support from several foundations and federal stimulus funds. Chicago’s program is supported by Applegate Farms. So there is support out there.

“I feel very empowered,” said school cook Shannon Soloman, a Cook for America™ boot camp graduate and mother of five who just lost 100 pounds. “I want to bring my education to the kids.That is where my heart, that’s where my passion is.Five-star restaurants are great and I love the chef learning I had right now but impacting the lives of our children and bringing that to our school district, it’s the most important thing to me right now in my life.”

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