Improving school offerings

Food has been under attack of late—on TV, in the papers, and no more than on the school-front. The reasons speak for themselves:

• One-third of our children/adolescents are either overweight or obese, thus putting them at higher risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and other health problems.

Meanwhile, 32 million children eat lunch at school every day, with 11 million more also eating breakfast there. Put another way: kids consume 30% to 50% of their calories at school, all of which is contributing to the weight issues confronting so many.

Enter the federal government.

Some time ago Happy Meal toys were banned, as were sugary drinks in vending machines. Then in December, President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Its stated goal is “to provide children with healthier and more nutritious food options, educate children about making healthy food choices, and teach children healthy habits that can last a lifetime.”

Maybe it’s about time. Take for instance the typical fare provided by our public schools, like next week’s offerings at one such school:

• Grilled hot dog on a wheat roll or baked chicken strips

• Bella Rosy pizza or oriental chicken

• Philly cheese steak or baked mozzarella stix

• Baked French toast or egg, ham, and cheese on a muffin

• Hot ham sandwich or baked chicken strips

Not exactly low-fat, low-sodium, the whole wheat hot dog roll and baked, not fried, chicken strips and mozzarella stix notwithstanding. Nevertheless, parents have always had the final word on their children’s food choices—and always have the option to pack their lunch.

Then again, maybe we parents are falling short in the nutrition arena, and we need this $4.5 billion law to make things right. Along with increasing the number of children in school lunch programs, it also:

1. Provides additional funding to schools that meet updated nutritional standards for federally subsidized meals.

2. Promotes local farm-to-school networks, the creation of school gardens, while ensuring more locally produced offerings.

3. Sets basic standards for nutrition and physical activity programs.

4. Mandates that parents can more easily access the nutrition values of school meals.

Meanwhile, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has recently proposed overhauling the nutritional guidelines of meals served at public schools, this for the first time since 1995. His plan is to:

1. Establish calorie limits.

2. Gradually reduce sodium content over the next 10 years, eventually by more than 50%.

3. Ban most trans fats.

4. Require that more fruit and vegetables be served

5. Mandate that all milk be low- or non-fat, and that flavored milk be non-fat.

6. Slowly up the amounts of whole grains until most of the grains are of the whole variety.

7. Include both a grain and a protein for breakfast.

Before all that takes effect, though, concentrate on serving lower sodium and fat meals and beverages at home. We can all do better on that front—and benefit from losing a pound or two, as well. Support is readily available online, think Weight Watchers, as is personal assistance. And since wholesome foods contribute to academic success, be sure to pack your child’s lunch, too, complete with, say, an apple and carrot.

It’s the right thing to do—government intervention or not.