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Some Schools Want Less Healthy Lunches (And Why We Need to Stop This)

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Did you know that some schools actually want to make their lunches less healthy?

It's true. Some colleagues of mine, Jennifer Woo Baidal and Elsie Taveras, wrote about it in a terrific article in the New England Journal of Medicine that is a must-read.

Since 2012, public schools have been using updated nutrition standards. The changes, which came from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA), are simple and sensible: more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, less trans fats and sodium, healthy calorie guidelines. And as an incentive, HHFKA gave the schools more money.

Sounds perfect, huh? Healthier foods for the kids, more money for the schools.

But now, just two years later, many schools want out. Some school officials, food-industry advocates, and the School Nutrition Association have raised concerns--so much so that the House of Representatives included a way for schools to get a waiver and opt out in the 2015 Agriculture Appropriations Bill.

Why would any school want to go back to unhealthy school lunches? The answer is what it almost always is in these kind of situations: Money.

The problem, they say, is that fewer kids are buying the lunches since the changes. Now, it's not clear that this is all because of the changes--while it's true that fewer kids are buying school lunches (even though more qualify for free school meals), this started before 2012. Prices have gone up, and, well, school lunches hardly have a great reputation, if you know what I mean.

But it is true that the healthy lunches don't go over big with all children. Hey, we see this at our own dinner tables. While there are certainly children out there who love broccoli, many more of them love french fries.

However, at our own dinner table, we don't say: Oh, no problem, you don't have to eat your broccoli. Or any vegetables or fruits, today or ever. Just eat french fries. Because we know that this would be bad for our children, and we want them to be healthy. Shouldn't schools want the same thing?

And here's the other thing we need to remember: The more kids are exposed to a new food, the more likely they are to eventually like it and eat it. Not only does seeing healthy foods in school help set kids up for better eating habits, the simple truth is that it may take more than two years for this new way of eating to become normal and accepted--and for kids to start eating more of those apples and salads and stop throwing them out.

Most of the most important things we need to do take work. This is one of them. Giving up on this is incredibly short-sighted when it comes to the health of our children (and, not for nothing, our future workforce and healthcare costs). That's why the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and more than 200 other organizations (and 19 former School Nutrition Association presidents) joined First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in opposing changes to the new school nutrition standards.

You should too. If your child goes to a public school, talk with the principal. Find out where they stand on the new nutrition standards. If they are wavering, talk to other parents. See how you can help your school build a healthier eating culture--and get more children buying and eating the healthier foods. As the first and most important teachers of children, families are central when it comes to teaching and reinforcing good eating habits; schools need our help.

Let's get the word out, and stop Congress and others from turning back the clock when it comes to the food our children eat. The point shouldn't be to get kids to buy and eat more food--that's the thinking that got us the obesity epidemic in the first place. The point should be to give kids healthy foods, teach them healthy habits--and help them have a healthy future.


Photo credit: 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

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