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Chuck, do you know any communities or states that have successfully raised the bar on nutrition standards in school meals with creative ideas and collaborative efforts? – Brian F. in Memphis, Tenn.

Last week, I discussed how bad the nutrition in lunches at public schools has become. I also addressed the limited ways in which the federal government can enforce healthier eating.

And some of the federal government’s programs can be simply counterproductive. One such example is how many public schools in 19 states are issuing “fat letters,” report cards on students’ body mass index ratings.

Don’t America’s youths have enough to be insecure about without being graded also on their body fat? Does anyone really expect that this form of peer pressure will be a positive thing?

The fact is that as good as any governmental program regarding nutrition may be, it takes people to run it and parental participation to make it stick within each household. That is why I say that the best agents to improve the nutritional habits of America’s children – in and out of schools – are not government agencies but parents and guardians.

With their help – in conjunction with schoolteachers and school administrators – many local communities and school districts have come up with some creative and unique ways to improve children’s eating habits and education. In turn, some have developed into statewide programs.

One great example is schools in Oregon, which have been highly successful teaching students about nutrition and gardening by incorporating them in the teaching curriculum and their hands-on training. There are 394 gardens around the state being tended by students. In the Joseph School District alone, 248 students grew about 6 tons of produce last year.

The great thing about Oregon’s Farm to School programs is that they allow the students to invest their own time and energy in growing a diet they can live on. At the same time, they learn something about local farm-to-school supplying and even various growing methods, including organic. It’s hands-on training that reinforces that the best foods aren’t grown in vending machines! And another clear benefit is that local farmers, commerce and specialty crops – including vegetables, fruits, tree nuts and nursery crops – are promoted and supported.

With more and more fruits and veggies being imported from countries that do not have the strict guidelines on foods that the U.S. enforces, growing (and buying) local and organic is always the best option, in my book.

The Statesman Journal reported: “Teachers are using the outdoor classrooms more and more and incorporating them into their teaching, said (Salem-Keizer School District) garden coordinator Brenda Knobloch. For example, fourth- and fifth-graders at Grant Elementary School started a food-waste composting project that reduced waste by 70 percent and created compost for the gardens. They also created a rain garden to study water conservation and learned about native plants.”

The Oregon state government is even offering grants to schools that increase the amount of locally grown food in school lunches. Nineteen districts already have received the grants. As far as how that money is allocated, the Statesman Journal reported, “Each district will develop a program that spends 82 percent of the money on purchasing Oregon food products and 18 percent on agriculture- and garden-based education activities.”

Sara McCune, the Farm to School coordinator for the Corvallis Environmental Center, works with her school district’s food services. She told the Corvallis Gazette-Times that the program seeks student participation and feedback for recipes, too, which often include produce that is unfamiliar among students and even unpopular, such as turnips or cabbage. Packaged in certain recipes – for example, cabbage in a stir-fry – it often leads to students enjoying new, nutritious servings. Ingredients in other districts even include fresh seafood from the Oregon coast.

McCune said, “Kids went crazy for it; they gobbled it up.”

Whether your state offers any hands-on, student-participatory nutrition program like what is happening in Oregon, it’s a great educational idea that a few concerned parents or citizens can appeal for in their local schools.

At the very least, we all need to realize it’s imperative that parents and concerned citizens do what they can to fight to improve meal nutrition in their local schools. I simply don’t believe that those standards of excellence will stick for the long run without their commitments and participation.

In The News & Observer, Suzanne Havala Hobbs, a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor of health policy at the University of North Carolina, recommended something in her community that is a great word for all of us: “Become a school meals booster.”

She said one can do that with three points of action:

  • “Talk it up. Be positive about school food, and your attitude will catch on.”
  • “Embrace the convenience. School meals are a good deal and can save you hassle in the morning.”
  • “Get involved. If there’s an opportunity to serve on a school meals advisory board, consider it. At a minimum, share your feedback and offer constructive suggestions for improvement. Get behind school meals.”

Next week, I will compare the health patterns of kids who bring their lunches from home with those of kids who buy them at school. I also will give parents the best tips from experts about steps they can take to help motivate their kids to make better nutritional choices.

Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.

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