Thursday, April 22, 2010

Our national security depends on school meals - say what?

In my former life, B.C. (before children), I worked hard at "creating a healthy school environment". That was my job. I spent most of my time working with schools to improve school meals and incorporate more physical activity into the school day- a la Mrs. Obama's push with with her "Let's Move" campaign- with a mostly volunteer organization called Action for Healthy Kids. (I won't tell you about how much time I spent banging my head against the wall.) So I am not surprised when I see stories like "School Lunches are a Threat to National Security, Retired Officials Say " that focus national attention on the failings of school meals, as they seem to get the brunt of the blame when it comes to childhood overweight. According to this article, unhealthy school lunches are "leaving 27 percent of young adults 'too fat to fight'" and is jeopardizing military recruitment. The report, released by a non-profit group called Mission: Readiness, calls for more federal funding for school lunches in a time when funding for anything is clearly at a premium.

While I whole-heartedly support efforts to provide healthful school food and to get kids moving, I am skeptical when it comes to blaming the schools for our national security problems as they relate to obesity. Just as I believe teachers are not the reason that why we are apparently dumber than the rest of the world (a charge I've heard before), I think there is significant learning of behaviors that takes place in the home, outside the classroom or in cafeteria. The question is: when are we as Americans going to take responsibility for our children and stop blaming others?

In my visits to school cafeterias I often saw children with lunches packed at home that were nutritionally void. They often included fat-filled "Lunchables" and sugar-filled soft drinks. And for many of the students who had school-prepared meals, that lunch was unfortunately the main source of their nutrition for the day as it was likely their only meal of the day. Many of those students qualified for free or reduced-price meals. So for them, they were lucky to obtain 40% of their calories in a day from school food, as this article suggests. You see, there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to feeding children, especially when it comes to school food. Some kids are underweight despite what they eat, and some overweight, too. We're all individuals with individual needs that are not going to be solely addressed through school lunch.

Maybe it's unrealistic to believe that in this day and age parents still have "role model" status for their kids. I still believe they do and that's why I try to teach my child "all things in moderation" and introduce new foods and activities even at this young age. Now that I have a child, I see what a challenge it can be to get children to eat those vegetables. And I see what a mimic my toddler is - he picks up on everything and imitates me constantly. In fact, I've learned more about my unflattering traits in watching him grow than I ever knew - apparently I roll my eyes and say "umm" a lot more often than I thought.

Let's face it: with school and work demands, traffic, technology and the general safety issues that face us now, we all move less and we eat more. What's more is that schools can't afford to provide that activities time for kids to exert those calories and I certainly don't see the kids in my neighborhood running around outside, playing like we did when I was young (probably because they're racing from one after-school activity to another). But the key to maintaining a healthy weight is "calories in= calories out".

I wish that we could address our nation's security through healthy school meals but I think it's going to take a much more concerted effort on the part of parents to make sure this country is safe. This is just one woman's opinion but I'd feel much safer if we worked to set positive examples for our kids at home instead of relying on schools that already have endless child-rearing duties to do it.

Recommended readings on this subject: Your Child's Weight: Helping Without Harming by Ellyn Satter

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