For Release Sunday, June 13, 2010
© 2010 Washington Post Writers Group
WASHINGTON — Can we really slim down the next generation of Americans, help our school children shed the extra pounds that could spell lifetimes with high prospects of type 2 diabetes or heart problems?
Michelle Obama is trying hard to reach parents with her “Let’s Move” campaign. Scientific evidence is being mustered. The link to America’s military preparedness is being made. As Sen. Mark Udall (Colo.) wrote recently to the First Lady, nearly a third of 17-to-24 year olds are unfit for military service due to their weight or lack of fitness.
But the national effort shouldn’t obscure individual cities’ efforts. And a surprise leader is the Nation’s Capital. The District of Columbia last month approved some of America’s strictest rules, aiming to curb the overweight and obese conditions that plague no less than 43 percent of its public school children — one of the nation’s highest rates.
Washington’s school menus will be rewritten to ban trans fats and reduce salt and saturated fats. Strict calorie limits will be set. Diets will include whole grains each day, with varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables. Space for gardens and compost piles will be set aside at school sites, with special emphasis on organic and locally grown foods. Minimum times for physical exercise will be upped to 150 minutes a week in elementary schools and 225 minutes in middle schools.
And in Washington’s public schools with moderate or high concentrations of poor children, the new law requires that breakfast will be served for all children without charge each day so that those kids heading to the cafeteria for free breakfast won’t be stigmatized. Plus, lunch will be free for most children. (An sales tax increase on sodas, ferociously opposed by the industry, will pay the bill.)
The District law also encourages schools to buy organic products from Maryland and Virginia farmers — reflecting a national “farm to school” movement that’s now reached over 2,000 schools in 40 states. The idea: fresh and nutritious food for children, and a consistent, reliable market for local farmers.
What a turnaround that suggests! Pizza, hamburgers, french fries, hot dogs and chicken nuggets — those are the school lunch offerings Americans first think of, according to a national poll just released by the Kellogg Foundation.
Facts underscore the poll findings. A U.S. Department of Agriculture survey shows that means served through virtually all school lunch programs meet the country’s proclaimed nutrition standards for protein and calcium. They do a middling job on calories. Yet less than 30 percent of schools have shaped their menus to keep saturated fats under recommended levels.
And they face a dilemma: fresh foods do cost more. Processed foods — especially corn-laden products — are cheaper because federal farm price support policy has made them a glut on the market, driving down their cost.
A companion barrier: Federal reimbursement rates for school lunches are low, driving schools to serve cheaper processed, high-calorie foods. And many schools count on fees from vending machines — packed with high-calorie items such as sodas, sports drinks, cookies or chips — to pay for extracurricular expenses.
Slowly, schools are evicting the vending machines or requiring they offer healthy products. More are swapping out their deep fryers for salad bars. Increasing numbers are learning it’s a mistake to stick with contracted food service management firms — that they do better with self-operated programs that are specifically tasked with preparing freshly cooked, unprocessed, tasty foods for youngsters.
The National League of Cities reports an array of range of city halls and school districts, among them Savannah (Ga.), Jackson (Tenn.) and Oakland (Calif.), have begun to partner in community-wide wellness programs aimed at the childhood obesity problem.
In Connecticut, the New Haven Food Policy Council sponsored a region-wide “Childhood Obesity Summit.” It’s tapped the experience of Yale’s pace-setting sustainable food efforts for its students, and published an attractive “Primer on Federal, State and Local Policies that Impact School Food.”
It’s true, the obstacles are legion. Harried families often eat out at the high-fat chains, in place of healthier home-cooked meals. The food industry spends $1.6 billion a year advertising its calorie- and fat-laden products to children and adolescents. Scattered subdivision-type neighborhoods mean more kids have to be driven to school, or take school buses, rather than walking or biking. “Screen time” — television, computers, texting on cell-phones — has taken a toll on neighborhood sports.
In May Michelle Obama released the report of the administration’s Childhood Obesity Task Force, including 70 specific steps. The bold goal: to “bend the curve” of today’s child obesity rate — almost 20 percent — back to its 1972 level of 5 percent by 2030.
It’s a tall order. But the growing local moves are a clear signal. And national leadership too– This initiative is so crucial for the nation’s future that, if it succeeds, it might just be the Obama administration’s most important legacy.
Neal Peirce’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, email@example.com.