Chuck, I appreciate all you’ve written in the past two weeks about improving public school lunches. As a parent, however, I find the safest and most nutritious way is preparing my kids’ lunches to take to school. Do you agree? – “Bagging Is Better,” Bullhead City, Ariz.
In Part 1, I discussed how bad the nutrition in public school lunches has become. I also addressed the limited nature in which the federal government can, even in its best programs, enforce healthier eating.
In 2010, data showed that though roughly 30.6 million U.S. students ate school lunches, only 6 percent of school lunch programs met the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutritional requirements, according to WebMD.
In Part 2, I discussed how Oregon is one of several states that are leading the way in enhancing school lunches and successfully teaching students about nutrition and gardening by incorporating them in the teaching curriculum.
This week, I’ll compare the health patterns of kids who bring their lunches from home with those of kids who buy them at school.
First, regarding your question about whether it’s more nutritional for a child to bring his or her lunch or buy it, the answer is: It depends on who’s packing the lunches and, mostly, what that person is putting in them.
In 2010, a study presented to the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology looked at the eating and activity habits of 1,076 middle-school students.
According to WebMD, the survey put the kids into three groups: those who “always” or “almost always” ate school lunches, those who “always” or “almost always” brought their midday meal from home and those who sometimes did one and sometimes the other.
WebMD reported that compared with kids who brought lunch from home, those who ate school lunches:
“Were more likely to be overweight or obese (38.2 percent vs. 24.7 percent)
“Were more likely to eat two or more servings of fatty meats like fried chicken or hot dogs daily (6.2 percent vs. 1.6 percent)
“Were more likely to have two or more sugary drinks a day (19 percent vs. 6.8 percent)
“Were less likely to eat at least two servings of fruits a day (32.6 percent vs. 49.4 percent)
“Were less likely to eat at least two servings of vegetables a day (39.9 percent vs. 50.3 percent)
“Had higher levels of LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol
“Were less likely to participate in active sports like basketball, moderate exercise like walking, or team sports. … And they spent more time watching TV, playing video games, and using computers outside of school.”
Those nutritional statistics don’t imply that there are exceptions to the rule in healthier school programs (like the one in Oregon), but it’s difficult to debate those types of overall fitness trends and evidence.
And rather than see them as impossible tides to turn around, we should regard these school munchies wars as opportunities for our kids to grow and arenas in which to spur them on to make good decisions. Whether we bag or buy their lunches, we should involve them in our nutritional decision-making and motivate them to make the right choices when they’re away from us.
Elizabeth Jackson, assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Health System, told WebMD, “The school environment is an excellent opportunity we should not be missing to teach kids to make healthy choices, both in terms of food and exercise.”
She added that that opportunity is particularly ripe in middle schools, where kids are starting to become more independent. At that age, they’re making eating and exercise choices that could stick with them for the rest of their life.
That is why parents need to fight to ensure healthy elements and eating habits at school and at home. Together, with the right health personnel in schools, we can help our kids win the consumption wars and gain power over their cravings.
Next week, in the last installment of this back-to-school fitness series, I will give parents the best tips from experts about steps they can take to help motivate their kids to make better nutritional choices, especially when outside the sphere of parental influence.