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Editorial: Helping kids make healthier choices

Recently Monitor staff writer Kathleen Ronayne explored an interesting change at Concord High School, where students this year are increasingly foregoing, say, a lunch of pizza and fries in the cafeteria in favor of buying a similar meal at the pizza shop down the street.

For the school, trying to pay its food bill, where kids buy lunch is a significant issue. But in a larger sense, the real issue for kids – and for the rest of us – is more about what we’re buying than it is about where.

The rise in two diet-related health problems in America – obesity and diabetes – is alarming. So is the rate at which these problems are spreading among children. What’s more, the evidence is growing that the American diet, dominated as it is by meats and processed foods laden with salt, sugar and fat, is responsible for our startling rates of heart disease and cancer – rates far higher than in other cultures with diets based on vegetables, fruits and whole grains.

Can the schools change this, all on their own? Not in the face of popular tastes, parents pressed for time, and the billions the food industry spends to develop and market foods that taste great now only to catch up with you later.

But schools must be an instrument of change.

So when lunch program leaders demonstrate a knack for innovation, that should be noted. Staff writer Sarah Palermo documented two such instances in the Sunday Monitor: at Pembroke Academy, where the kitchen manager, Denise Nedeau, doubled student use of the salad bar while reducing waste through single-serve containers; and in Bow, where the nutrition director, Allison Niedbala, targeted kids with after-school munchies through new vending machines offering low-calorie choices.

It’s also important that schools re-think how they teach nutrition. Here they are limited by state standards, which dictate, for example, that nutrition be covered along with other important life subjects – mental health, drugs and alcohol, sexuality – crammed into nine-week classes.

A review of the Concord nutrition curriculum is under way. One aim of participants is to ensure that the teaching flows logically from one year to the next. Another is to design more units so they draw parents into the teaching, perhaps by exchanging recipes for simple, healthy meals. (Here’s our twist: How about a special potluck evening?) A third is encouraging teachers to think of nutrition throughout the year – in gym, for example, stopping kids 10 minutes into an activity to ask how they’re feeling, whether they ate breakfast, and if the two might be related.

All this makes sense. And so does reviewing policies with an eye toward encouraging better nutritional choices. This year new federal regulations required students to take a serving of vegetables or fruit with their school lunch. (No more just picking pizza and a drink!) In Concord, this change went over best at Rundlett Middle School, where kids were more understanding of the reasons than in grade school and less rebelliously inclined than in high school.

At the high school the new mandate, combined with an open campus policy that allows students to get food elsewhere, may explain this year’s drop in lunch purchases. To that we say, how about closing the campus at lunch one day a month while offering up an array of healthy choices?

Heavy-handed? Impractical? It’s only one day a month. And once you try a black bean taco, you just may like it.

Legacy Comments1

It's inspiring to read the work of dedicated school food service staff at Pembroke Academy, Bow and the Rundlett Middle School who are improving the quality of school food. Research shows that kids who eat healthier meals perform better academically and have better behavior, too. These schools are part of a movement destined to ensure that the next generation of kids live long, healthy, high quality lives. Mike Devlin Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation

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