Junk food, school lunches...what can you do?

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School lunches, Vending Machines…What can we do about junk food in our schools?

It is no secret that the obesity rates have grown in our school age children at an alarming rate in the last 20 years. If this epidemic is not addressed, for the first time in history, the children of today will have a shorter life span than their parents according to the New England Journal of Medicine. This diminished life expectancy is due to the increases risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer that school age children are facing.

Study after study has been done to determine the causative factors in the epidemic. All evidence points back to one simple equation, the more junk food kids eat, the less healthy they are. This might seem like common sense, but what to do with this information is not as straight forward.

While our kids are at home, we have some control over their eating habits, but when they walk out the door that control is lost. Children are subjected to vending machines in the hallways and school lunched that lack nutrients and are high in calories. In the spring of 2005, the University of Chicago published a study that compared the caloric intake of children who ate a school lunch to children who brought their lunch. They found that the average child who ate a school lunch consumed 40 more calories than their brown bagging counter parts. This might not sound like much, but eating the additional 40 calories every day added two pounds to the school lunch eaters at the end of first grade and increase the likelihood of obesity by 15%.

School children are not only consuming more calories, but the source of these calories lack the nutrients that are essential for growing children. In many schools healthy options are not offered and children are more likely to choose a vending machine option over a healthier snack.
What can be done to make a difference in the nutrition that our children receive. Parents and concerned citizen throughout the county have been making huge changes in school lunch programs and vending machine options. The Los Angeles Unified School District, which is the second largest school district in the country with 750,000, banned the sale of soft drinks during school hours. The Vista School District in San Diego County purchased their own vending machines and provided healthier options for students. In White Fish Montana, improved nutrition in school lunches was credited with improved student behavior and did not decrease the school lunch revenue.

The road has been paved for those who are interested in removing junk food from schools and creating healthier options for the school lunch programs. There are organizations dedicated to helping make these changes in schools. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) publishes a school lunch toolkit which is available for free on their web site at http://www.cspinet.org/schoolbook. This toolkit is complete with goals and strategies for making changes in school nutrition, model legislation, sample letters and case studies of schools that have made a positive change to the nutrition in their schools.

The eating habits that children develop early on are likely to stay with them for their entire life. These habits can either lead them down a path of obesity and disease or a path of health and vitality. Changes in school nutrition will not be made without the support of concerned parents and citizens. By taking action to make a change in the nutrition in schools, children can be spared from the health consequences that face so many of our youth. It is important to address this issue early in life and prevent obesity before it starts.