Back to school: Make it a healthful start to the new school year

sarahdeferranti

by Sarah de Ferranti, MD, MPH

As we send our children back to school, it’s time to speak out in favor of better food for school-aged kids. Given the high rate of childhood obesity nationwide, and the importance of healthful eating for a child’s readiness to learn, this issue should be front and center.

Children eat at least one meal (often two meals and a snack) at school, representing up to 2/3 of their daily food intake. In the present economic crisis, with many children dependent on school lunch for adequate calories and food diversity, it’s more important than ever to make these calories count.

The foods offered at school aren’t always the most nutritious, but change seems likely. The Child Nutrition Act, which provides federal money ($12 billion) to pay for school lunch and breakfast for 31 million children, is up for re-authorization this fall. This, along with President and First Lady Obama’s focus on nutrition for children, has increased the attention paid to school food. Groups within and outside of government are working to improve school foods and beverages, and many are speaking out. A broad range of forces are behind this movement – witness Whole Foods’ campaign on packing healthier lunches, the school garden movement, and the “eat-ins” organized for Labor Day by Slow Food USA. Some states are taking unique steps to battle childhood obesity; this year, for instance, Massachusetts schools are measuring and reporting students’ Body Mass Index (BMI) to parents along with regular report cards.

Federal money offers important support for schools but current spending levels are not sufficient. The cost of school lunch and breakfast is subsidized in many districts by the sale of “a la carte” items – less healthful choices like candy and chips. Many experts believe that humans are programmed to prefer these high fat, high sugar foods over fruits and vegetables. Just as you would shield your kids from cigarette smoking and other adverse influences, you should protect them from the overload of pizza and soda at school events and bake sales. An excess of these foods in school isn’t fair to kids who are struggling with weight, blood pressure or cholesterol problems, and won’t help kids without these issues avoid developing them.

Here are some specific suggestions:

• Focus on breakfast – even something small eaten on the way to the bus stop or in the car is better than nothing. Here are some fast and tasty breakfast options from a Children’s nutritionist.

• Try to send a balanced lunch with a fruit and vegetable to school at least twice a week, more if possible. Protein will help your child feel satiated longer and hold them through to the afternoon snack.

• Offer low calorie alternatives to juice, sports drinks and sodas. Better yet, stick to milk or water.

• Supply your child with non-perishable snacks that can stay in their backpack, making it easier to say no to unhealthy foods. Popular 100-calorie snack packs are not the best choice, instead, opt for fruit and low-sugar granola bars.

• When it’s your turn to bring food to school events, think about bringing fruits and/or vegetables along with the pizza, or exchanging it for a turkey sub.

• Advocate for putting healthful, local foods in and keeping junk foods out of the school. Check out the recent posting on the Institute of Medicine recommendations for childhood obesity prevention.

• Support the Massachusetts state bill H. 2092, which limits soda and calorie-dense junk foods in the schools. It is currently before the Joint Committee on Public Health.

Dr. deFerranti is currently accepting patients for her clinical study about the nutritional treatment of overweight adolescents with cardiovascular risk factors. Children between 8 and 17 with two or more cardiovascular risk factors but no other major medical issues may be eligible. Contact Erica Denhoff at (617) 355-0485 or erica.denhoff@cardio.chboston.org for more information.