Jun 07 2014

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School Lunches and Common Sense

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A Necessary Reality Check...

The latest pitched battle in Washington revolves around what our children eat in schools. It is a case study in how good intentions are lost in impractical solutions.

Last Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee passed the agriculture budget which includes $21 billion for child nutrition.  The bill would allow schools to “opt out” of White House nutritional guidelines, passed in 2012, that added more fruits and green vegetables to school breakfasts and lunches. The original intent of the new guidelines was to combat the alarming rise in childhood obesity. The rules also reduced the amount of salt and fat children consume at schools. Roughly 32 million children participate in school meal programs each day.

The “opt-out” provision has caused an uproar, with no less an authority than First Lady Michelle Obama leading the charge against any change. Pro-flexibility legislators are castigated as pawns of corporate interests that had previously found a lucrative business in supplying schools with artery-clogging fare such as pizzas, nachos and chicken nuggets.

Thus it is fair to conclude that the House language is a thinly veiled attempt to support big business over the health of our children, right?

But of course there is another side of the story.

No less an authority than the School Nutrition Association, a group composed of school nutritionists, is actually praising the “opt out” provision. The group said the cost of the new rules had led to a decrease in the number of schools participating in the federal meals programs. and that the rules had also led to tons of wasted food because children were not eating the healthier alternatives.


Disgruntled, hungry students have (hilariously) taken to YouTube to protest the new food guidelines which have resulted in unappetizing selections with overall calorie restrictions per meal that are wholly inconsistent with childhood needs at this age of development.

Surely Mrs. Obama’s intent was not to starve the children into smaller waistlines. But perhaps it appeared as an all too obvious, common sense cause-effect; offer healthier school meals and childhood obesity will slow.  But of course, that abstract policy math doesn’t translate into the real world of finicky, ravenous children, as any parent can readily attest.

Worse, the debate has not only become polarized, it is now irrelevant. Neither Mrs. Obama’s guidelines nor the new “opt out” language will create a sustained path to combatting childhood obesity.

And childhood obesity – as obesity writ large in America – is a big problem. Contrary to the views of some right leaning pundits, the right to get fat is nowhere to be found in the Bill of Rights.  And the practice has a huge social cost that impact our health care system in a way that say, stamp collecting does not.

But the solution is not solely food-centric. Indeed, the situation must be viewed in its totality.

I made it through my entire public school career eating school lunches and graduated high school underweight for my height. Just for context, my meals at home, prepared by a loving and caring mother, would have given Mrs. Obama a bad case of the vapors. Red meat, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, canned veggies (as I refused to eat anything fresh), white bread (Wonder was my favorite), and of course, a cabinet full of sweets. For me, back then, nutrition was about being full.

But of course there were two critical differences between then and today.

First, PE was required in every grade in school, and they worked you, allowing such liberal-traumatizing events as peer team selection (meaning someone had to be last), dodge ball and running outside when the temps dropped below 50 degrees.

Second, we played outside. During the summer, I was out the door by 10 and wouldn’t come  home until I heard my mom calling me for dinner at 6. We played sports for hours, we swam, and we built tree houses. Same for weekends and after school.

We were active.

Looking back, my metabolism could only have gotten me so far given my nutrition – exercise, constant and vigorous was the difference.

The basic facts haven’t changed today, but the context has. The exercise component has been radically reshaped by entertainment technology and changes to school athletic programs.

Why go out and play when your Xbox can do all the running for you? Grande bag of Doritos and a 64oz bottle of Coke and your set for the day, sitting on the couch, watching TV. Indeed, with new technology you don’t even need to move to talk to friends and interact with a group. It’s all virtual.

At the same time, school PE programs are having less impact.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that young people aged 6–17 years participate in at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily. However, in 2011, only 29% of high school students surveyed had participated in at least 60 minutes per day of physical activity on all 7 days before the survey, and only 31% attended physical education class daily.

This is the other side of the coin that is left largely unaddressed in today’s ferocious policy debates.

Given the facts, the solution to the school lunch dilemma seems to fairly jump out. Provide flexibility to school districts to serve a variety of foods, included the dreaded higher fat favorites, but tie it to any variety of exercise metrics, whether they be participation in after school sports, regular PE attendance or even success in a nutritional meal plan where some of the more delectable items are the reward.

You make it a contest. Provide children with choices. You want chicken nuggets and fries?  Show me you were in PE last week. And here, the modern technology that is responsible for the Xbox and other couch potato distractions provides a very low cost means of tracking metrics – a swipe card, no more sophisticated than a gift card.

This is only one idea. There are others.

One size fits all is not the solution for a problem as complex as childhood obesity, and harsh rhetoric aside, it is hard to find anyone who is in favor of childhood obesity. Set out the goals and let school districts innovate. Let technology and an actual appreciation of childhood behavior drive the solutions that actually attack the problem.

Mrs. Obama’s heart is in the right place. But whether the “opt out” provision in the current bill stays or goes, it is unlikely that the nutritional guidelines will result in anything but hungry and resentful kids and a whole bunch of waste.

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