How can we stop childhood obesity when unhealthy foods are being offered in the schools?

We cannot expect America’s youth to form a good understanding of healthy habits if the educational institution is modeling the contrary. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that between 1980 and 2012, U.S. child obesity rates have skyrocketed to a staggering 18 percent in children 6-11 years of age; and 21 percent in adolescents 12-19 years of age.

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Obese children and adolescents are at a higher risk for developing co-morbid conditions such as: stroke, cancers (breast, colon, esophagus, gallbladder, myelomas and Hodgkin’s lymphoma), cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and osteoarthritis. The U.S. currently spends $190 million healthcare dollars per year on obesity related issues as one in every three children are obese.

To address this looming issue, First Lady Michelle Obama launched the Let’s Move initiative in 2010 in conjunction with the National Lunch and the School Nutrition Association. The campaign was designed to spread nutritional knowledge and modify school lunch standards to improve child and adolescent health.

This campaigns’ goals for decreasing childhood obesity include: offering low sodium foods, pushing for decreased portion sizes, encouraging less hours in front of the TV, increasing daily requirements for physical activity and encouraging more fruit and vegetable consumption. Since the program’s launch, there have been major pushbacks against Obama from some school districts and students’ parents stating that the federal government should not dictate what their children should be eating.

Tom Hamburger of The Washington Post reported in his May 30, 2014, article that school administrators in rural communities criticize that these healthy food regulations are costing the federal government more money while school trash cans are filling up with fruits and vegetables.

Critics continue that the plan targets some cultural “mainstays” which have upset school administrators and parents alike.These include substituting whole wheat for corn-based tortillas, offering baked instead of fried chicken and completely eradicating buttermilk biscuits (particularly in the South.) Similarly, Mark Horne of Political Outcast wrote in his Aug. 11, 2014, piece: “In [one] district, 166 fewer students bought lunch every day last year – 30,000 fewer a year. Instead they brought lunch from home, went to nearby restaurants or skipped lunch altogether…It’s also a financial problem for the district. If kids don’t buy lunch, the district loses money and has to dig into its general fund.”

Meanwhile, on the home front, Chris Gentilviso of The Huffington Post reports in his May 16, 2014, article that Connecticut lawmakers mandated the statewide eradication of chocolate milk from school cafeterias in an attempt to conform to the National School Lunch Program’s federal ban on added sodium and sugar in school beverages.

Gov. Dannel Malloy axed that proposal announcing to The Hartford Courant: “We’re not going to ban chocolate milk in schools.” Connecticut dieticians argue that although chocolate milk contains 60-to-90 milligrams of added sodium, chocolate milk still has some nutritional value: “From a nutrient profile, you’re getting calcium, vitamin D, potassium, phosphorus and other nutrients.”

Despite the national plan’s rejection by some school districts, Obama reports that over the past four years, the obesity rate has begun to fall, particularly in young children. This decline is attributed to the improvement of nutritional standards within the homes and schools as well as shifts in the creation and distribution of healthier products by the food industries.

Implementation of change across a nation of school districts is going to take time and there are going to be kinks. As healthcare leaders, we must integrate new ideas and remain open-minded as change takes flexibility and patience.

The recent decline in childhood obesity rates lends itself to the hope that healthier palates are slowly being developed by these kids who were, for instance, previously rejecting the whole wheat tortillas. After all, a whole wheat tortilla is better than nothing.

The staggering rates of childhood obesity demand that these nationwide initiatives continue. Since kids spend a lot of their time in school, offering healthy school lunch options is a sure way to introduce the concept of healthy choices. Researchers backed by the U.S.Department of Agriculture prove that many early rooted ideals about eating extend into later years of life. Therefore, the idea is that these kids will develop healthful philosophies on nutrition and exercise at a young age which they will then carry into adulthood.

Lauren B. Abric is an RN with an interest in nutrition and obesity prevention. She is earning her master’s degree to become a family nurse practitioner and lives in Southington.

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