Catherine Juon, a mom of two in Saline, MI, knows firsthand that it isn't easy to feed kids healthy foods. But she thinks her kids' school should be trying as hard as she is. Month after month, the cafeteria menus her children bring home are filled with nuggets, fries, sugary desserts, and burgers that her son, Phillip, 9, says taste like "weird sausage." "I stopped looking because it made me crazy," she says. "We're not perfect at home, but I try to offer a variety of fruits and vegetables. The schools could be doing more to offer nutritious meals. It's really frustrating to me."
She's not alone. Danielle Mirsky, a Summit, NJ, mom of two, says the offerings in her second-grader's cafeteria revolve around Domino's pizza, French-bread pizza, chicken patties, and hot dogs. "I hate the menu," she says. "I wish there were more choices and less processed food." Her son, David, 7, has a slightly different take: "My favorite meal is little mini chicken nuggets," he says. "They're good. You get like twenty of them. You also get french fries." He says he also likes the nachos, but then adds, "They hurt my stomach, so I can't have them." With childhood obesity so much in the news, why are kids eating nachos and nuggets (and other foods heavy on fat, salt, and starch) for lunch in school? Moms like Juon and Mirsky aren't the only people irritated. Doctors and dietitians are joining the call to change the food that more than 30 million kids eat at school each day. "Children shouldn't go to school to learn bad eating habits or even uphold bad eating habits. Schools should be exemplary," says David Satcher, M.D., U.S. Surgeon General from 1998 to 2002. He's the founder of Action for Healthy Kids, a national nonprofit organization aiming to improve nutrition and increase physical activity for our children.
The health risks associated with the kinds of foods served at schools are many, from obesity, of course, to cardiovascular problems and cancer later in life. And while, ironically, some cities, including New York, have banned the serving of foods containing trans fat in restaurants, you can still find trans fat in lunches being served in our schools. According to 2006 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of children ages 6 to 11 are obese. In a sample of 5- to 17-year-olds, almost 60 percent of overweight children had at least one cardiovascular-disease risk factor and 25 percent had two or more.
Obesity isn't the only issue: The connection between good nutrition and learning is firmly established. Eating well and being physically active contribute to better academic performance, attendance, and behavior, research shows.
Heather Brandon, a mother of three in Hartford, CT, has seen plenty she doesn't like in her daughter, Council's, lunchroom. "They serve a ton of meat and a lot of fried stuff," she says. "The thing that grosses me out the most is the beef tips. I don't know what the 'tips' are. The sauce is full of corn syrup. And then a roll -- a starchy white roll!" Because Brandon tries to limit the amount of meat and fried food her family eats, often her daughter's only cafeteria option is a bagel and a cheese stick.
So why can't kids find more meals with vegetables and fresh ingredients? Turns out the answer's not so simple.