Unless you made your child’s lunch or live in one of the more affluent areas that offer vegetarian choices, chances are your children were treated to a full course of high fat, high cholesterol and high calories with little fiber.
With childhood obesity reaching epidemic levels, many are looking at federally funded school lunch programs, which feed millions of public school children daily. One group doesn’t like what it sees.
“School lunches are hideous,” said Susan Levine, a dietician with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “That breakfast and lunch, which for many poor children may be the only meals they get, are garbage. It sets a foundation for what they eat later in life.”
“There are some schools that do a good job to get healthier options on the menu and promote them to children. But for the most part schools don’t have the money to spend on good nutrition,” she told The Final Call.
The federal government spent more than $8 billion on the National School Lunch program last year, according to the Physicians Committee. The organization recently released a report card that graded school districts on their menus. A Center for Science in the Public Interest report released Nov. 28, found that two-thirds of states have no or weak nutrition standards to limit junk food and soda sales.
CSPI found only 11 states have comprehensive food and beverage standards that apply to whole campuses, the whole school day, for all grade levels. Thirteen states limit portion sizes for snacks, and only 11 states limit portion sizes for beverages. Fifteen states limit the saturated-fat content of school snacks, and only 10 address trans fat. Just five states set limits on sodium in school foods.
Sugary drinks contribute to childhood obesity. So-called sports drinks such as Gatorade would be confined to athletic areas in high schools. The amendment also would set limits for calories, sodium, saturated fat and trans fat in school snacks.
“If your family lives in San Diego, Fairfax, Va, Charlotte, N.C. or Pinellas, Fla., your child will find healthy vegetarian options most days of the week,” said Physicians Committee dietician Dulcie Ward, R.D. “But if your home is in Atlanta, St. Louis, Omaha, Neb., or Anchorage, Alaska, your child may have a rough time finding healthy food.”
If school lunches are problematic, school vending machines, stores and off campus shops and restaurants only add insult to injury.
“Over the last 10 years, states have been strengthening their school nutrition policies,” said Margo G. Wootan, CSPI director of nutrition policy. “But overall, the changes, while positive, are fragmented, incremental, and not happening quickly enough to reach all children in a timely way.”
“The majority of states still rely on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s outdated school nutrition standards,” said Ms. Wootan. “Those national standards limit only the sale of jelly beans, lollipops, and other so-called ‘foods of minimal nutritional value.’ Those standards don’t address calories, saturated and trans fat, sodium, or other key nutrition concerns for children today,” she said.
Tyrone Henderson, a ninth grader in Mableton, Ga., said his lunch consists of pizza on Monday, pizza on Tuesday, pizza on Wednesday and in fact pizza every day of the school week.
“I like pizza so I eat it every day. They have other things, but for me it’s pizza,” he told The Final Call.
While young Tyrone is not overweight, a diet of just pizza and other high fat, high caloric foods without the right amount of physical activity could easily usher him into obesity.
Over the last 20 years, obesity rates have tripled in children and adolescents, and only two percent of children eat a healthy diet, according to Agriculture Department nutrition recommendations.
Advocates are looking for congressional support. The Harkin-Murkowski amendment, sponsored by Senators Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Lisa Murkowski (R-Ark.) would exclude sugary drinks from public schools at all times, but would allow low- or no-calorie drinks in high schools.
“After years of fighting us, the food and beverage industry are now working with us on strong national standards for school foods and beverages,” Ms. Wootan said. “We hope that Congress will listen to parents, health organizations, and the food and beverage industry and strengthen the national nutrition standards for school foods this year. Given the rising rates of childhood obesity, Congress can’t afford to wait any longer.”
Meanwhile, the best thing parents can do is to make healthy nutritious lunches for their children.