School lunches have been the bane of many a child’s existence as the processed food in nearly every school is also oversweetened, salted and oiled. For the past several years, however, there have been advocates fighting for healthier school lunches, most notably Michelle Obama but also Chef James Oliver and Ann Cooper. Not only do healthier lunches combat childhood obesity, it also ends up being better for the environment and local communities.
According to the 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), 16.9 percent of children between the ages of 2-19 are categorized as obese, with childhood obesity being linked to adult obesity. Research funded by the Department of Agriculture has linked obesity to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), though surprisingly, being in both the National Breakfast Program (NBP) and Lunch Program appeared to help combat obesity.
According to the researchers, there are two main issues schools face with lunches: creating an inviting but affordable lunch menu and focusing on a la carte lunches where students can add on unhealthy options to their lunches [Source: SMU]. Luckily funding from the local government as well as from the USDA and White House have begun to decrease incidences of childhood obesity.
Michelle Obama, in conjuntion with the USDA, has created the “Let’s Move” program aimed at lowering childhood obesity within the next generation. The program has helped establish the Task Force on Childhood Obesity (TFCO), which conducts a review of every policy and program related to childhood nutrition and physical activity. The TFCO also develops a national action plan to maximize federal resources and set concrete benchmarks towards combating childhood obesity, with the final goal to reduce childhood obesity back to only 5 percent by 2030. The TFCO focuses on Mrs. Obama’s four pillars in her Let’s Move program:
- Empowering parents and caregivers
- Providing healthy food in schools
- Improving access to healthy, affordable food
- Increasing physical activity
In 2010, the Let’s Move program incorporated the HealthierUS School Challenge, created in 2004 by the USDA, to further promote better food at schools. The two programs aim to have all schools across the nation participate in the NBP and increase participation in the NSLP 1,000 every year for the next two years. Let’s Move will also create more rigorous standards for food quality and nutritional value of school lunches by promoting fresh vegetables, less processed food, less sugary and oily food and a more well-balanced diet. Recently, the Let’s Move program received a $1.4 million grant from Whole Foods to provide salad bars in 6,000 schools across the US. The first salad bar was installed in Riverside Elementary School in Miami [Source: Grist].
Of course, only offering healthier alternatives at schools will not combat childhood obesity. As part of the Let’s Move initiative, Mrs. Obama is also looking to invest $400 million to put supermarkets in areas she calls “food deserts”. These areas are places across the US that are “nutritional wastelands”. While these areas may have supermarkets, the quality, quantity and variety of different fresh vegetables could be very low. Therefore, offering fresh produce that’s easily accessible by all would also help to combat obesity [Source: White House]. Pushes to more locally grown food, planting gardens on school grounds and generally educating both children and parents on the importance of a well-balanced diet are also essential for the fight against obesity. The Let’s Move site offers information, recipes and ideas for leading a healthier life both inside and outside school. Other organizers like Jamie Oliver and Ann Cooper have also created healthy lunch kits and information for schools, students and parents to peruse and purchase.
While the Let’s Move program focuses only on providing fresh produce, this has the side effect of also helping the environment. Providing access to fresh produce in food deserts as well as schools would cut back on the amount of processed foods that most Americans eat. This in turn would decrease the amount of wastewater and solid waste (packaging, husks, etc) tossed after making these processed foods. The Let’s Move program focuses on buying locally, which could easily cut down GHG emissions by reducing transportation of materials. Focus on more physical activity (one of the initiatives for Let’s Move suggested walking to school) and generally getting children and parents outside of the house would reduce our CO2 emissions and improve overall quality of life. Besides this, simply emphasizing eating more fruits and vegetables over grains and meats would significantly drop the amount of CO2 that we emit into the atmosphere as well as reducing the amount of solid waste from these products.
Combating childhood obesity will not only lead to a healthier population, but also to a healthier environment. With less processed foods, smaller portions of food and overall more