Lousy school lunches fuel childhood obesity

More exercise, less soda. This has been a mantra among those battling childhood obesity, and many school health initiatives have taken it up.

But why? While exercise is important for health, studies show the childhood obesity epidemic has little to do with lack of physical activity. And while sodas, candy bars, and other typical vending-machine items clearly aren’t health foods, the majority of children don’t buy food from vending machines on any given day.

However, 31 million American children do eat in school cafeterias, and many of them are from the poor households that are most likely to suffer from obesity and obesity-related illnesses.

Pennsylvania’s State Board of Education recently proposed requiring daily physical activity in schools. It’s also considering higher standards for on-campus vending-machine snacks and other foods provided outside school meals. The proposal is a step toward improving children’s health. Unfortunately, though, it does not address school meals themselves.

School lunches are ground zero in the war against childhood obesity, and there’s never been a better time to improve them. Congress is reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act, a presidential task force is examining the childhood obesity epidemic, and first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign has drawn attention to the issue.

As a physician and nutrition researcher, I strongly support legislation that would give children access to healthier options at school. The Healthy School Meals Act, sponsored by Rep. Jared Polis (D., Colo.), would help schools offer more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, vegetarian meal options, and nondairy beverages.

Studies show 39 percent of the children who eat school-provided lunches are overweight, compared with 24 percent of those who bring lunches from home. One look at a typical school lunch menu, and it’s not hard to see why: Meat loaf, hot dogs, pepperoni pizzas, and cheeseburgers are standard lunchroom fare.

Many school entrées contain more than half of a day’s worth of sodium and saturated fat, and that’s not counting the sodium and fat in such sides as french fries and cheese sticks. And school beverage choices usually include sugary flavored milks.

One major problem is the so-called commodity foods that the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers to schools. The center-of-the-plate items are mainly high-fat meat products. As a result, 70 percent of school meals are too high in saturated fat to meet the USDA’s own guidelines.

In recent years, experts at the Institute of Medicine and other organizations have recommended that Americans eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and less saturated fat and sodium. The American Public Health Association and the American Medical Association have called for vegetarian meals to be offered in schools to lower the incidence of childhood obesity and health disparities.

Familiarizing children with healthy, plant-based foods at an early age lays the foundation for lifelong healthy habits and helps cut the risk of Type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses. A child who chooses a veggie burger instead of a hamburger just two days a week reduces his or her saturated fat intake by 37 percent. On the other hand, one who eats a meal of chicken nuggets has to run three miles just to burn off the calories it contains.

America’s current generation of children is the first to face a shorter life expectancy than their parents. It’s time for Congress to fight the right childhood obesity battle and support the Healthy School Meals Act.

By Neal Barnard
Dr. Neal Barnard is a nutrition researcher and the president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. For more information, see pcrm.org.

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