Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Policy Point Wednesday - Panic at the Lunchroom

If you follow food news at all, I'm sure you've read about the conservative coalition moving to eliminate calorie caps in school lunches, or the school groups protesting what they call a one-size-fits-all approach. Previously, school lunches were governed by a mishmash of state policies that seemed more concerned with getting calories into children, whether they need them or not, than with teaching good eating habits. The current policy sets a cap of 850 calories per lunch for high school students - more than a typical fast-food lunch - and 650 for elementary school students; these limits represent 1/3 of the daily recommended calories for kids.

I am guessing that the problem is not really the calorie caps, but the types of foods that are now required by the new legislation. New school lunches have a focus on fruits and vegetables , and contain fewer calories from "kid-friendly" foods like pizza, french fries, and nachos. "Kid" foods haven't disappeared from school lunch - they are just offered in smaller portions, with a larger proportion of the calories coming from foods like sweet potatoes, re-fried beans, steamed vegetables, salads, and fruit. The real problem with the new school lunch is that many kids suffer from food neophobia, and just aren't used to these items which comprise (per guidelines from the Institute of Medicine) a large proportion of the calories for the meal.

In 2010, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, as part of an announcement about the USDA's Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, said "Improving the health and nutrition of our kids is a national imperative and by providing schools with fresh fruits and vegetables that expand their healthy options, we are helping our kids to have a brighter, healthier future," ... "Every time our kids eat a piece of fruit or a vegetable, they are learning healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime."

Neophobia of foods is not uncommon with children, and it can be difficult to address - but our current system of pandering to children's tastes just to get food in them sets up a lifetime of unhealthy behavior. Children learn to eat new foods by repeated, positive exposures - and the school lunch system now offers consistent exposure to a variety of healthy foods. Offering good, healthy food is the adult's responsibility. Choosing to eat it or not and learning the consequences of that choice is the kids' responsibility.

Creating healthy eating habits is critical to improving nutrition and reducing diet-related disease in our most vulnerable populations. Detractors of the new lunches insist that every child should have access to all the calories they want to ensure that the kids who depend on school lunch get what they need. Rather than taking this blanket, not to mention expensive, approach, I think schools and communities should work to identify families in need and connect them to the wide variety of programs available to ensure their children get three meals a day: SNAP, WIC, School breakfast, Afterschool Snacks, and the Seamless Summer Option, in addition to local community resources like food pantries and soup kitchens. Kids need to eat, but more importantly, they need to learn to eat well.

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