Childhood Obesity and School Lunches: Are School Lunches Healthy?
Obesity and School Food: Is there a connection?
Let me just start by saying that Jamie Oliver is my hero. He has once before and is now trying again to reform the nutritional deficits of Americans and combat obesity. Just as in the first season of Food Revolution, he is trying to reform the kind of food that is served in schools, this time in LA Unified District. I will caution you however that if you think think that this problem is unique to LA Unified, it sadly is not. I work for a school district in Michigan and I have witnessed the same things that Jamie Oliver was voicing concern about within the district in which I work. So why am I so hyped up about this? Keep reading and you will see.
Childhood Obesity Facts
Statistics show that between 16-33% of children between the ages of 2 and 16 are obese and most are those who live below the poverty level. Not overweight, obese. What is the difference? Both are considered to be unhealthy but are defined a little differently. Being overweight is defined by dictionary.com as in excess of being considered normal, proper or healthful. Obese is defined by being very fat or overweight; corpulent. So what does this mean in terms of health for the youth of America? Here are some startling facts.
- Overweight and obese children are more likely to become overweight and obese adults
- There is an increased rate of heart disease
- Increase rate of high blood pressure
- The highest rate of type 2 (formerly known as adult onset) diabetes with our youth in our nation's history
- Increased rates of cholesterol
- Sleep problems such as apnea
- Self-esteem and confidence problems
What do school lunches have to do with it?
The National School lunch program is an important part of keeping our young citizens fed. Many times this is the only opportunity for children to receive a meal. Having said that, wouldn't it be most advantageous to us to provide high quality, healthy meal choices for these young people?
For years I have noticed a trend in my students. After I pick them up from lunch, they are much more "active" than before lunch. Why is this? I have long held the belief that it is the food that is served in the cafeteria. Since there are no labels on the trays of food that are served, I have used our breakfast program to explain my theory.
My district is considered "at risk." This means that 80% of our students qualify for free and reduced breakfasts and lunches. A few years ago, the district received a grant to serve breakfast to all students. Since this program is now served to all students, I have seen the activity level of students increase at the very beginning of the day. Now that it is served in our classrooms instead of the cafeteria, we teachers see first hand the quality of food that is provided to our students. Here are some examples from yesterdays breakfast.
Another Sample Breakfast
Please note that there is no fresh fruit served with this breakfast, there is juice that is 100%, and there is a cereal bar that is highly processed and filled with a variety of types of sugar. The milk is white milk with no added flavors however strawberry and chocolate milk options are available during lunch. That is not to say that there is never fresh fruit available, there sometimes is. This usually consists of an apple, orange, or banana.
Here is an example of another classroom's breakfast. I call this a wolf in sheep's clothing. The oatmeal and 25% less sugar labels imply that this is a healthy option for children, but once again it is highly processed and full of sugars. Just take a look at the labels.
How Does Your Child's School Breakfast and Lunch Rate?
Have you ever looked at or asked your child what they had for breakfast or lunch at school? Try it and see. If you are not sending your child's lunch with him or her each day then you are at the mercy of others in what they feed your child. I think that you would most likely be shocked at what is found in most schools. Many if not all of the foods are highly processed, high in sugar and very little fresh choices.
Your Child's School Breakfast or Lunch
Have you ever examined your child's school breakfast or lunch?
The Chicago Solution
One school in Chicago, Little Village Academy, feels that their school lunches out perform those that parents send in. Now I have not seen the food that is served in this school so I cannot comment on what the quality is, however they have banned all food from home from being allowed in their school. They feel that the choices that parents send in for their children are not high quality and healthy ones. Is this the solution or does this cross the line?
I have seen some of the things that students in our school have brought to eat during lunch so I understand where they are coming from, hot Cheetos, mountain dew, etc. Clearly these items have no place in a child's diet, especially at school. But from what I have seen, I feel that as a responsible parent, I can pack a much healthier lunch than what I am seeing within my school system. Perhaps the solution would be to ban and confiscate certain items that are brought to school.
Causes of Childhood Obesity
Do not think that I am trying to say that food served in schools is the cause of childhood obesity. There are many factors that contribute to this epidemic. Some of these causes include:
- Lack of physical activity
- Poor role models by parents
- Lack of money to purchase healthy and often more expensive options
What I am saying is that the quality of food being served in most schools across our nation, especially to those in lower income settings, are contributing to this trend of obesity. I never understood why we need to "flavor" milk in order for kids to drink it. Isn't this the same as handing them a candy bar for breakfast? Apparently Jamie Oliver feels the same way. He demostrated what this equates to for the students of LA Unified for one week's worth of flavored milk servings.
Why is this important to you?
We are as a nation creating a society of unhealthy individuals. The health care interventions that we will need for our young people will soon rival those that we provide for our baby boomer population. This will mean that there is an even greater rise in health care costs which will either mean more out of pocket expenses for you or more contributions through taxes to a national health care system. Either way it is more money out of your pocket on treatment rather than preventative care.
We will also add a very sad statistic to our history. Soon we will have a group of youngsters whose parents will out live them. We are indeed slowly killing our youth. Parents will outlive their children due to complications set on by obesity.
A Personal Note
It truly breaks my heart to see fifth and sixth graders twice the size of me walking down our hallways. It is an epidemic that is destroying our youth and it needs to change. Are school breakfasts and lunches to blame? Of course not. But considering that children spend most of their waking hours in school, it is important for schools to set the tone. If the federal government is sponsoring these programs, then let's stop trying to save a buck now by providing the cheapest cost and quality food only to pay for it later in health care costs.
Jamie Oliver is right, we need a food revolution. Our society is suffering. So what are you willing to do to change this trend? If you are interested in seeing Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, it airs on ABC Tuesday nights at 8:00pm Eastern Standard time. It is truly an eye opening experience.