By Kathryn Strong
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
The days of apples as favorite Halloween treats are long gone. By the end of a night of trick-or-treating, kids are weighed down with huge bags of candy. The ensuing sugar binge gives many parents a fright — but what’s really scary is that some kids are filling up on unhealthy foods every day of the week.
As a dietitian, I suggest that parents make Halloween candy rules to avoid sugar highs and stomach aches. But even more important, I encourage all Americans to support comprehensive child nutrition reform to improve the National School Lunch Program and other child nutrition programs. Congress will soon consider legislation to reauthorize the school lunch program, and this vote comes not a moment too soon.
Nearly 40 percent of calories consumed by children are from junk food, according to a new study analyzing data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Half of these calories come from just six foods: pizza, ice cream, whole milk, cookies and cake, soda and sugary fruit drinks.
Many school meal programs are working hard to improve child nutrition, but they are strapped for cash. As a result, many school lunch lines are still loaded down with pepperoni pizza, cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets.
That’s especially disturbing since more than a third of American children are either overweight or obese, and one in five teens already has abnormal cholesterol levels. The nation’s weight problem already costs $168 billion, according to a new study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research. This accounts for nearly 17 percent of all U.S. medical costs, and obesity adds about $2,800 to a person’s annual medical bills. These numbers will continue to rise unless we invest in comprehensive obesity-fighting programs in schools and communities.
Schools are already working hard to serve healthier meals to fight childhood obesity, but current policies make it difficult. In a recent School Nutrition Association survey, more than half of schools surveyed are working to increase vegetarian options. We must do everything in our power to help. Congress needs to pass legislation with resources to help schools across the country provide kids with nutritious meal options.
Schools should have access to vegetarian center-of-the-plate commodity foods, in addition to fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Low-fat vegetarian foods can help lower the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other health problems plaguing children.
Children who are introduced to healthful foods early on have a greater chance of developing lifelong good eating habits. That’s why it is so important to teach kids the value of healthy eating — both in health class and in the lunch line.
Kids shouldn’t have to go bobbing for apples to find healthy food choices. It’s time to make sure every lunch line in America offers a healthful option every day of the week.
Kathryn Strong, M.S., R.D., is a staff nutritionist with the nonprofit group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.