Editorial: Healthier Choices for Children in Schools
Kids need healthier diets. If you could look into the arteries of children in schools, you would find that many have early signs of atherosclerosis before they pick up their high school diplomas. One in five is overweight by the end of elementary school. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in his or her life.
As children grow into adulthood, cancer will eventually strike one in three females, one in two males. And as they reach older age, the same fatty, high-calorie diets that caused these health problems will increase their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
There are many proposed solutions to children’s health problems: more exercise, less TV, more vegetables and fruits, less meat and cheese, more meals at home, and less fast food. But there is one thing everyone agrees on: Children need healthful choices at school. People who learn about healthful foods in childhood are much more likely to choose them as adults.
But schools are in a tough spot. As food prices rise, many schools rely on inexpensive commodities—many of which are high in fat and cholesterol—and may not be able to expand their menus in healthier directions.
This year, Congress will wrestle with these issues as it takes up the Child Nutrition Act, which sets the guidelines for school meals and other food assistance programs. PCRM is calling on Congress to help schools bring in healthful options.
A few simple choices would do a world of good. Take a veggie burger, for example. It provides exactly the same amount of protein as a typical cheeseburger—15 grams. But while a cheeseburger harbors 10 grams of fat, a veggie burger has only 5, and it has no saturated fat, no cholesterol, and fewer calories.
Vegetarian chili has exactly the same protein content as chicken nuggets—10 grams per serving. But while the nuggets have 18 grams of fat, the veggie chili has only 3 grams. It, too, has essentially no saturated fat, no cholesterol, and fewer calories. Unfortunately, most school children never see these healthful vegetarian options.
The president and first lady have selected Sidwell Friends, a private school in Washington, for their children. On Feb. 10, 2009, Sidwell Friends’ menu featured beef chili, and students looking for a healthier choice could choose vegetarian chili. However, that same day, the Washington, D.C., public schools served meatloaf with gravy, and children who wanted a healthy vegetarian option were offered nothing at all.
On Feb. 13, 2009, Sidwell Friends served regular pizza, and roasted vegetable pizza for students who wanted a vegetarian choice. But children in the public schools were served chicken nuggets with barbecue sauce. If they wanted a vegetarian option, they got nothing.
On Feb. 25, 2009, Sidwell Friends served regular shepherd’s pie and vegetarian shepherd’s pie. Public school children were served bologna and cheese sandwiches. If they wanted a healthy, vegetarian option, they got nothing.
A child in public school has a right to a healthful lunch, just as a child in private school does. But most schools will only provide these choices if Congress pushes them to do so—and provides the wherewithal to make it happen. Schools should offer vegetarian choices every day, and they should also have the funding that makes it feasible for them to do so.
Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
President of PCRM