Healthy Food In Schools Gaining Momentum

Rick Hendershot
April 18, 2013 — 905 views  

School boards across North America have been challenged in recent years to get rid of the junk food in school cafeterias and vending machines and replace it with healthy, nutritious meals and snacks.

And while it may seem obvious that this is the right thing to do, it is not always that simple.

No serious debate

There is no serious debate that schools should be serving healthy food. Everyone in a position to care about this issue -- parents, physicians, teachers and administrators -- agrees that children need nutritious, high-fiber, low-fat foods to remain healthy and attentive, and to set them on the right path for their adult years.

Most informed decision-makers have also become aware of the scandalous numbers of children who are now overweight or obese. Childhood obesity has been called an "epidemic" brought on by poor diet and lack of exercise. In some areas of the U.S., as many as 1 in 4 children meet the definition of being overweight or obese.

Causes and consequences of poor diet

Most children become overweight or obese because of two factors: poor diet and lack of activity. If you want a child to get fat, there is a well-known formula to get the job done. Just encourage little Billy to eat lots of calorie-rich foods while sitting around playing video games and watching television. He'll be overweight in no time.

The North American life style encourages this kind of unhealthy behavior. Like all of us, children are bombarded by advertising encouraging them to eat high-calorie, high-fat, high-sodium foods.

The break down of traditional family meal patterns also encourages the consumption of fast foods. Fast food is prepared by restaurant chains whose primary motivation is mass marketing. Not surprisingly, they have discovered that one of the most effective ways to sell their products is to "spike" them with sugar, salt and cleverly disguised fats.

Kids are easy targets for this kind of manipulation when the same kind of meals and snacks are transplanted into a school environment.

The consequences of childhood overweight are also well known. The Center for Disease Control estimates that as many as 61 percent of overweight children have conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol that make them more at risk for heart disease. They are also much mor esusceptible to type 2 diabetes, a disease that until a few years ago was associated only with adults.

Financial obstacles to healthy eating policy

Many school boards have suffered funding cuts over the last twenty years. Vending machines stocked with nonnutritious snacks, and exclusive contracts with soft drink bottlers have been used by many school boards as a source of revenue.

But school administrators across the country are realizing the revenue is relatively small, and the trade-off is irresponsible. Some are restocking vending machines with healthy foods, and in some cases, recouping the initial losses by using more sophisticated marketing strategies.

Other long-standing policies of the U.S. Department of Agriculture also tend to discriminate in favor of diets that are heavy in meat and milk. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine notes that meat alternatives are not subsidized by government, but meat and meat products are. The result is that a low-fat, low-cholesterol veggie burger is often twice as expensive as a high-fat hamburger. The same thing happens with milk. Milk production is subsidized, but not the production of low-fat alternatives.

Despite these obstacles, individual schools and district school boards are making progress. School cafeterias are introducing more healthy meal selections, and groups of concerned parents are springing up to support healthy food choices for children in schools.

Regional providers of healthy snack products like are also making it easier to replace vending machine junk food with economically priced alternatives that are tasty, low-fat and highly nutritious.

Rick Hendershot