Although my own kids are not yet school-age, I’ve always been interested in trying to figure out how to provide kids with healthier food at school. Perhaps because I remember all too well being 12 and using my lunch money to buy a cup of lemonade and two nutter-butters for lunch!
One organization, Better School Food, is working to bring healthier lunch options to school across the country. Below is their “Top 10” list of changes we should make to ensure that all kids have healthier options, and can make better choices, for food at school. The organization also has a Community Action Plan (PDF) with ample statistics about childhood obesity and other health problems associated with poor diet.
|1.|| Eliminate All Products Containing Partially Hydrogenated Oils
Trans fats increase harmful LDL cholesterol and decrease good cholesterol, which can contribute to heart disease.
|2.|| Eliminate High Fructose Corn Syrup
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) has a high glycemic index and converts to fat more than any other sugar. It increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, coronary heart disease, strokes, and cancer. Americans consumed on average 62.6 pounds of HFCS in 2001 according to the USDA. Many of the products on the market containing HFCS are geared towards children.
|3.|| Pay Attention to Portion Size
Researchers have found that portion size matters as much as taste when it comes to overeating. A recent study showed that large packages and containers prompted people to eat more than the actual recommended serving size regardless of taste. These oversized packages can be especially confusing to children, who may not look at nutrition labels regarding varying portion sizes – especially worrisome because children and teenagers are getting a greater percentage of their calorie intake from snacks.
|4.|| Serve More Fresh Fruit & Vegetables
Many U.S. school children are consuming more calories daily than needed, as well as choosing foods and snacks that are low in nutrients. In order to achieve normal growth and development of children and to reduce the risk of various chronic diseases, nutrient recommendations must be linked to keeping calories under control. With nearly 50% of the calories of children being consumed outside the home, it is imperative that schools offer nutrient-dense foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables in order to obtain the USDA daily recommendations.
|5.|| Support Local Farms / Set up Farm-to-School Programs
Farm-to-school programs, through which locally grown foods are served and promoted, are beneficial for a number of reasons. Fruits and vegetables sourced locally are fresher, so they taste better, resulting in kids eating more of them. The purchase of locally-grown foods supports the local economy and strengthens the local food system. Farm-to-school programs allow students to learn about, as well as appreciate, the sources of the foods they eat and to understand the importance of local agriculture. Farm-to-school programs benefit the environment by cutting down on the amount of fossil fuels used to transport food from the farm to the consumer.
|6.|| Offer Vegetarian Options Daily
As the quality of mass produced animal protein sources comes under scrutiny based on the amount of residual antibiotics, hormones, steroids and saturated fat content, vegetarian meals are wholesome options to be incorporated into school lunch on a rotating basis. Institutional foods, as purchased by many schools, may not always provide the most wholesome sources of animal protein. Vegetarian meals, not only wholesome and nutritious, also tend to be more economical, assisting the food budget.
|7.|| Serve More Whole Grains & Beans
The body needs carbohydrates mainly for energy. The best sources of carbohydrates are whole grains because the body cannot digest them as quickly as highly processed carbohydrates. This keeps blood sugar and insulin levels from rising, then falling, too quickly. Better control of blood sugar and insulin can keep hunger at bay and may prevent the development of type 2 diabetes. Eating whole grains may also make kids feel more satisfied for a longer period of time.
|8.|| Discontinue Use of Poor Quality Oils
Partially hydrogenated oils used for frying and food preparation, which are usually industrially processed oils such as soy, corn, cottonseed and canola, are derived from genetically modified food sources and extrapolated into oil using high heat and chemical processes, thus denaturing the oil and making it difficult to be utilized properly by the body. This phenomenon is linked to many diseases.
|9.|| Give Adequate Time for Students to Eat Lunch
Students need adequate time to eat to meet their nutritional needs, which is essential for optimal student health and performance. Students who aren’t rushed can relax, make healthier food choices, and enjoy their food more. Food served but not eaten does not contribute to nutritional health. Allowing enough time for students to eat can also prevent transient hunger that hinders attention and learning.
|10.|| Decrease Refined Carbohydrate Foods & Snacks
Highly refined carbohydrates are rapidly absorbed into the body, much like ingesting simple sugars, resulting in a spike in glucose levels. This causes individuals to still feel hungry or to become hungrier sooner, only to consume even more food. This repetitive pattern is believed to contribute to the obesity epidemic. It also increases the risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
If I could add a #11 (or perhaps this should be #1): Drink WATER. Nothing else is as good for the body, not even milk or fruit juices, and yet too many kids–and adults–drink anything but water.