Wednesday, March 31, 2010

School Lunches: The Saga Continues...

Ah, school lunches. All of a sudden, everyone is talking about them. I'm starting nutrition with my sixth graders this week, so I'll post how I'm incorporating this into our curriculum at a later date. For now, I'm pretty positive that school lunch is the teenage pregnancy of 2010, as far as hot health topics go. And while there was a lot of hype in in 08-09 about teenage pregnancy (specifically after what happened in Gloucester) it seems like the dialogue on that issue has faded. It did resurface a little bit during the health care debate, but the media let that fade too. Now, something new has surfaced.

School nutrition is even appearing in commercials! The American Beverage Association recently aired a commercial patting themselves on the back for eliminating full calorie soft drinks from schools across the country. Full calorie soft drinks? Are people still really concerned only with calories? What about sugar? What about high fructose corn syrup? Why should we be satisfied with less-calorie drinks in our schools when they are still serving drinks loaded with other junk?!? I laughed at this commercial. Way to go, corporate America.

And now, the media blitz of our new hot topic. I've posted on this before, and I'm not the only one. Mrs. Q is chronicling her experience eating only school lunches on her blog, Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project. If you haven't checked it out yet, please do! Then there are the countless news articles that have appeared recently. USA Today has an ongoing section on school lunch safety, which is eye opening in itself: many cafeterias are not passing health and safety inspections, food of a poor quality is making its way onto the trays of students, etc. This week an article appeared in the Boston Globe about struggling families and their reliance on school lunches. This effect is two fold: one being on the students eating the lunches, and two being on the districts who have to serve them without a reimbursement rate that is inadequate. For a comprehensive round up of what's going on in the news relating to school lunches, check out the school lunch roundup posted on Mrs. Q's blog by Brandon Smith.

Because my blog is rather young, there have only been a few posts about school lunches. This will definitely be an ongoing discussion (I have more posts in draft mode) and I hope this conversation continues. It's being hit from many angles: the First Lady, Jamie Oliver, national newspapers, and young, blogging teachers, to name a few.

There seems to be a general outrage about nutrition, but not much is being done. We can watch Jamie Oliver (I have to catch up on Hulu) all we want, but will we join him? While getting a conversation started is the first step (and a critical one!), action is what is needed. What can concerned parents do in their own communities? Here's my own list that I created, as someone with no expert experience in this type of situations. This is only from my head, and I thought about it over the last day or so. Let me know what you think! Here it is:

1. Organize. A group of fired up parents can do a lot to get something within school districts changed! If you do not like what your child is being served, find others who feel the same way you do. Talk with the administrators and teachers in your district. Most principals I know will at least hear you out, even if they can't (for whatever reason: money, etc) change anything immediately. Plan some meetings, get together, and make a game plan. It's better to have too many ideas than none at all!

2. Connect. Connect with local school officials. Tell them you want to work with them, not against them, in helping create more healthy meals for the student body, aka your kids. Reach out to local community organizations: garden clubs, health departments, community coalitions, etc. Nothing around like that? Start one! Social media has made it very simple to connect with others through e-mail, Twitter, Facebook group/fan pages, etc. There's no need to reinvent the wheel; many people have made changes to school lunches in their districts. Connect with these people and see what worked for them! Contact local representatives or other government officials and see if they can help you, too.

3. Research. Read, read, read about food and academic performance! Read articles like this one describing how one district makes fresh breakfasts, from scratch, for their students everyday. Make sure you research data on topics such as the impact of breakfast on academics (warning: company sponsored website), how food service professionals expand their breakfast offerings and be sure to find up to date information from reliable research publications.

4. Model. Want your kids to eat healthy? Eat healthy too! Many people complain about not having enough family time together, but cooking a homemade meal is one of the easiest ways to accomplish two things at once: family social time and healthy eating. My friend Matt has said this for a long time, and I'm in agreement. Realistically, most people can't eat only fresh, unprocessed foods. However, you can be aware of every food item you put into your body, and YOU can make healthy choices.

Also, please realize that schools are held to budgetary constrictions, and a lot of schools simply don't have the facilities to handle a lot of freshly prepared meals. Both are discussed in my post about what Anthony Geraci has done with the food being served in the Baltimore public schools.

Personally, one of my physical education colleagues and me and teaming up to revamp the bulletin boards in our school cafeteria to highlight different information about nutrition. We're still in the process of figuring out logistics, but once we get rolling I'll be sure to post about it, with pictures too.

Will school lunches change? I hope something about them changes. Our children are our future and if we want to have a healthy population in the future, we cannot continue on the road we are on.

As always, please e-mail me with questions, comments, or concerns.

NOTE: Michelle Obama has launched a contest called Apps for Healthy Kids. The goal is to create "innovative, fun and engaging software tools and games that encourage children directly or through their parents to make more nutritious food choices or be more physically active." Check it out, and if you're knowledgeable about that sort of thing, enter the contest!

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