With U.S. childhood obesity reaching a crisis level, schools find themselves increasingly responsible for ensuring that they offer healthy foods.
According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust for America's Health, childhood obesity in the U.S. has more than tripled since 1980. The percentage of obese and overweight children is at or above 30 percent in 30 U.S. states. Scientists predict this might be the first generation of Americans in 200 years to have shorter life spans than their parents.
So why are French fries and hot dogs still staples of school lunches?
According to Kathy Henderson, director of School and Community Initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, the answer lies in the lack of federal oversight with respect to the food offered to America’s students.
“For kids in school today, there are no federal regulations for any food beyond what is served in the National School Lunch Program,” Henderson said. “For public schools that participate in this program, the USDA hands down the standards those meals have to meet. In terms of foods that are outside the program, those standards come from any number of sources.”
Carsyn, a high school student and cast member on the Style Network television show “Too Fat for 15: Fighting Back” adds that too many schools don’t encourage healthy habits at the local level. “Honestly…no, they don’t encourage kids to eat right or exercise,” she said. “I think they really do want us to be healthy, but if they wanted that, they would probably do something about it.”
One major target for change is the amount of unhealthy processed foods routinely served to students. Henderson said that currently it is nearly impossible to avoid all processed foods in our schools.
“For most school lunch programs, they don’t like to deal with raw meat,” Henderson said. “It’s difficult, it’s expensive. So most school lunch programs have their meat processed.”
Despite all of the negative reports, Henderson contends there is reason to hope for a turnaround in America’s school cafeterias.
“School lunches are on everybody’s mind,” Henderson said. “Lots of school districts have decided to improve what’s available. I’m in New Haven (CT) right now, and the district has gone from having an outside vendor deliver meals that are, out of necessity, pre-processed, to deciding on having a central kitchen and going as natural as they can manage while feeding 20,000 students a day.”
She added that the lack of federal oversight may soon become a lightning rod for change.
“The new Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act [passed in December 2010] has provisions for federally providing nutritional standards,” Henderson said. “So we’re going to be able to regulate foods outside of the meal program.”
Carsyn recommends that educators offer help to overweight students, but communicate acceptance at the same time. “When my parents or friends or anyone nagged me about it….When everyone was like, ‘Do you really want to eat that,’ it just drove me crazy. I wanted someone to be like, ‘We like you for you, but we can help you.’ I think I would have taken the bait on that big time. I wouldn’t have felt attacked.”
Henderson added that while there is a lot of work to be done before all students are getting healthy meals at school, we are on the right path.
“New Haven is not an isolated incident,” she said. “This is happening all over the country. We’d love to see more, and we’d love to see it regulated on the national level. Then we know everyone’s getting it, not just in places where someone is inspired to do it.”