The Battle for Lunch Money
When they send their children to school with lunch money, most parents envision cafeteria employees piling healthy helpings onto colorful lunchroom trays.
"Many don't see the competition for that lunch money," says Priscilla Connors, registered dietitian and University of North Texas assistant professor of hospitality management. "Most parents may assume that lunch consists of a tray with fruit, vegetables, milk, breads, and meat -- what they don't take into account are vending machines and a-la-carte sales that can turn a school cafeteria into something resembling a mall food court."
School breakfast and lunch programs have federally established guidelines to create balanced meals, but the other options are not regulated. The alternative choices often add up to a poorly balanced diet that is too heavy in carbohydrates and fats and too light in nutrients, vitamins and minerals.
"Today schools must take the responsibility to be proactive in encouraging healthful eating habits among children because a significant number students eat both breakfast and lunch at school," Connors says. "Competitive foods seldom offer the best ways to accomplish this goal."
While the presence of competitive foods is generally limited in elementary schools, middle and high schools often are a different story.
"In middle school students are developing independent and life long eating habits," Connors says. "Food marketers understand that if children become familiar with a product at school it's likely to be their choice as adults. This is posing a serious challenge to children's abilities to make healthy choices in a revenue-driven environment that provides little or no incentive to promote good nutrition."
She believes the first leg of competition starts with vending machines that are readily available, easy to use, and limited in offerings.
Considering a-la-carte sales, Connors says, "Left to their own devices some children are more likely to eat pizza for weeks rather than consume the more diverse and balanced offerings of a traditional lunch line."
In making her case, Connors points to recent statistics. For example, the U.S. Center for Disease Control is finding more and more incidences of obesity and diabetes in 13- and 14-year-olds. Currently 4.7 million youths, ages 6 to 17, are overweight or obese and poor eating habits have contributed to this problem.
"In the past, schools in general have been passive about their role in creating a healthful eating environment," Connors says. "They put all the food choices out there and let children decide what's best for them -- now schools have an added responsibility to promote good habits that lead to lifelong health."
Connors says the best thing a parent can do is visit a lunchroom in person and scope out the dining environment.
"The first question a parent should ask is 'Does my school have a written nutrition policy?'" Connors says. "The nutrition policy is a district-wide written document that covers everything from the approach toward vending machines to admission of outside vendors."
Each district should have one, and for those that don't parents can help create one, she adds.
"But while doing these things parents should realize that this isn't an adversarial situation, but a cooperative one," Connors says. "It takes more than criticism to create a healthy environment it takes the interest of communities and families willing to participate in finding positive solutions."
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