(NOTE: this article is from the old School of Natural Healing newsletter)

April 2005

by Karen Saura, MH

Childhood obesity is rapidly becoming a major health issue for American children. Because children spend so much of their time in schools and so many of our children attend school through out national public school systems, school food programs stand out as a natural place to look to if we want to shift this national trend in a more positive and healthy direction. Exploring the role food programs in the public schools play in childhood obesity is a good place to begin, both as a part of the problem and as a part of the solution.

The factors that indicate the need for change are found in the health baseline of our children today. The Centers for Disease Control has declared that there is an epidemic of child and adolescent obesity in the United States. California is no exception. Statewide, 30% of children are at risk or already overweight; in some school districts, 40-50% of children are overweight. Childhood obesity is on the rise, and disorders like ADD have been linked to what children eat (Crane, 2005: 1).

The Harvard Magazine examined the evolution of humans and our diet in an article titled “The Way We Eat Now”. “The obesity epidemic arrived with astonishing speed” (Lambert, 2004: 51). According to John Foreyth of Baylor College of Medicine, “Childhood obesity, once rare, has mushroomed: 15% of children between ages six and 19 are now overweight, and even 10% of those between two and five” (Lambert, 2004: 51). In the 1990’s physicians began to report an alarming discovery of children being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which often accompanies obesity. Type 2 diabetes was previously found only in adults (Nestle & Dixon, 2004:132).

Yale psychologist, Kelly Brownell, attributes this alarming trend to what she calls “a toxic food environment of cheap fatty food, large portions, pervasive food advertising and sedentary lives” (Nestle & Dixon, 2004:132). Steven Gortmaker, professor of society, human development, and health at the Harvard School of Public Health, observes that the “convenience-food culture is so ubiquitous that even conscientious parents have trouble steering their children away from junk food”. In researching children’s diets and comparing caloric intake on days when children ate in a fast food restaurant to days they did not, “they soaked up 126 calories more on fast-food days, which could translate into a weight gain of 13 pounds per year on fast food alone” (Lambert, 2004: 52).

For the most part, the current trend in public school food programs is to cut costs by using cheaper pre-packaged government subsidized foods and to look to outside vendors to increase revenues by making brand name fast foods available for consumption on campuses. It is clear that the factors which drive the eating pattern of most American children are greatly influenced by media, corporate advertising, and the availability of poor quality fast food with limited nutritional values.

The government subsidizes low-quality foods, corn and wheat for example, while neglecting far healthier items such as fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts. Pediatrics specialist David Ludwig gives his assessment. “It’s a perverse situation. The foods that are the worse for us have an artificially low price, and the best foods cost more.” This in turn impacts school lunches. When districts find their budgets cut, the impact is seen in the cafeterias. Most schools are serving up more and more fast food, and make soft drinks and candies available through school vending machines (Lambert, 2004: 98). This shift in food availability has an immediate and devastating impact on the quality of our students school-day, their ability to concentrate and perform academically at their best, and on their immediate and long-term general health and well-being.

An alarming trend is emerging in many of our nation’s larger school districts. It is becoming common for companies to cut deals directly with schools in fiscal straits, offering their products at a discount, sometimes with a percentage of sales flowing back to the districts, in order to get directly at their target market, our kids. In 2003, New York City’s school district agreed to give the Snapple company exclusive rights to sell water and fruit juice throughout the district. The deal is estimated to generate up to $225 million depending on the thirsts of the City’s teachers and students. On campuses throughout the nation, kids can choose from Taco Bell, Burger King, Pizza Hut and Coca Cola to appease their daily hunger pains (Woodend, n.d.: 2). According to Eric Scholsser, author of Fast Food Nation, “Fast food chains don’t make an enormous profit selling fast food in the schools, but it’s a way of creating brand loyalty among these kids. And once these kids have the taste for the food, it’s a lifelong taste” (Woodend, n.d.: 1).

This lifelong taste can lead to a lifelong addiction to the very foods fueling our spiraling national obesity numbers. These foods do not necessarily have to measure up to established federal nutritional standards. Even for schools with a strong school lunch program, the presence of these often high sugar, high fat foods and sodas severely undermine the school’s attempt to provide and maintain a healthy food environment for their students and contribute to the epidemic of overweight and obesity in our nation’s youth.

While the federal government has established nutrition standards for school meals, there are no effective standards for competitive foods - foods and beverages sold a la carte, in vending machines, in school stores, or as part of school fund-raisers in the schools. Simultaneously, school food service operations have increased the availability of less healthy foods in an attempt to maintain a financially stable food service business (California Center for Public Health Advocacy, 2002: 1).

The causes of this epidemic are complex and multifaceted, resulting from changes in eating habits (increased caloric consumption) and decreased physical activity (decreased caloric expenditures). Efforts to address these factors must be comprehensive and must engage communities, schools, families and other institutions in supporting healthy diets and physical activity for all children.

Historically, school meals have been developed around the traditional nutritional guidelines such as the Food Guide Pyramid and the Dietary guidelines for Americans. These guidelines are based upon the assumption that people eat whole meals and that the content of those meals can “balance out” over time. Perhaps in an earlier era these guidelines served their purpose - but in today’s world of packaged and fast food menus, these guidelines can no longer be looked to for an adequate and balanced nutritional baseline.

Prevention is key

In 1999, the California Center for Public Health Advocacy established mandatory minimum standards for elementary and secondary schools. These standards addressed beverages, fat and saturated fat, sugar, portion sizes, and the availability of fruits and vegetables. They are guided by the following ideas:

* Food is meant to be enjoyed; a healthy diet can include snacks, deserts, side dishes and reasonable sized portions of most of student favorite entrees;

* Schools should be adequately funded, eliminating any incentive schools have to raise funds to support student programs by selling foods and beverages that compromise children’s health

* Schools should be a safe haven where students can learn to make healthy food choices outside the usual unrestricted marketplace with its intense marketing and ready availability of less healthy foods;

* Schools should not contradict health and nutrition messages taught by parents and teachers; and

* Children, schools, manufacturers, and growers can all win by promoting the sale of healthy foods (California Center for Public Health Advocacy, 2002: 2).

These recommendations are solidly founded in the current nutritional research and information and if implemented in the schools will begin to impact and improve the health of the students. As nutrition is improved, over time, the incidence of childhood obesity and its related conditions should diminish.

California created SB677: The California Childhood Obesity Prevention Act of 2003 to establish guidelines to further address these nutritional and health issues (Strategic Alliance, n.d.: 1). SB677 is directly aimed at preventing obesity. It bans soda sales in California schools, emphasizes good nutrition without breaking the bank, and proposes a statewide solution to phase in a statewide soda ban and keep up obesity prevention programs (Oritz, 2003). These measures are all sound nutritional steps which serve as a model both to institutions and to individuals of the most basic step we can all take towards greater health and vitality. Eliminate foods which are empty nutritionally and reach for healthy foods instead.

Many health researchers are now advising that to be healthy we must also consider the quality of the soil that our food grows in. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers kill the vital qualities of the soil. They are found in the foods we eat and have been linked to many health conditions. Healthy, rich, live soil grows nutritionally rich foods. Many nutritional educators encourage eating organic fruits and vegetables whenever possible, both to avoid the dangers of pesticide residues in our foods and to take advantage of the most nutritious foods available.

Considering how many of our nation’s children are involved in the public school systems, public schools is a logical place to start to shift the relationship our kids have to the foods they eat. We should look to bringing organic foods into school cafeterias wherever possible. This is already being done in many schools throughout the nation. In 1994, the Berkeley Unified School District began to support an organic foods and garden program called the Edible Schoolyard at Martin Luther King Middle School. This school garden program has become a model for schools seeking to bring nutritional and environmental awareness onto their campuses both nationally and worldwide.

In the 1999-2000 school year, the Berkeley Unified School District took their innovative approach a step further with the adoption of a district wide Food Policy that emphasized making available organically grown produce in the district lunch program (Martin Luther King Middle School, 2002: 1). Many of these organic foods come from school gardens where children are involved in the production of their own food through the Edible Schoolyard and other school gardens in the district.

Now, parents and school administrators may ask, “How does an Edible Schoolyard tie into childhood obesity?” According to Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse restaurant and champion of the locally grown, fresh food movement, we need to be looking for comprehensive solutions for obesity. “People should know that just upgrading food in the cafeteria is not going to do it. Kids eat junk food before they get there… We know from the Edible Schoolyard experience that if they grow it and they cook it, they eat it. They will eat it if they have the pride of making it” (McManus, 2004: 2).

More recently, in July 2004, the Berkeley Unified School District unanimously agreed to approve a district-wide garden/food curriculum that begins in kindergarten and goes through high school. In a revolutionary move, the school district agreed to offer academic credit for lunch (Center for Food and Justice, 2005: 2). The curriculum will be developed with the collaboration of Alice Waters of the Chez Panisse Foundation, the Center for Ecoliteracy, Children’s Hospital of Oakland and Berkeley Unified teachers and staff. This will result in a nutrition curriculum which is to be implemented throughout the district over the next five years. This curriculum aims to reconnect food to culture and agriculture, to teach kids where food comes from and to empower them to become stewards of the land which sustains us all. When the program is complete, every school in Berkeley will have its own garden and full service cafeteria where students will be directly involved in their food production and nutritional needs (Artz, 2004: 1).

The Berkeley Unified School District can be used as a model for what is possible on a district level. On an individual level, many smaller strategies can be implemented in any school district which will begin to impact the awareness of the faculty, staff, students, parents, and community as to the importance of shifting the foods available to our students for their health, well-being, and quality of life - both present and future. A key component in any nutritional education program is to keep to the forefront of the dialogue the idea that every time we reach to put something into our mouths, we have a choice-a choice between something which supports our health and something which doesn’t. All of these little choices through the day add up to what we eat in a day, week, month and year. Who we are and how we feel is a direct result of all of these little choices. The place to begin to make them healthy ones is right now!

Creating a nutritional awareness and education program for the parents, students, staff and administration is a key starting point. Parents can be educated about nutrition and involved through newsletters and information sheets and look to nutrition for the stage of growth and development of the children and changes to come. Every parent wants what’s best for their kids if they know what that is and have the support to provide it. Begin with basic nutritional suggestions.

RECOMMENDATIONS:

* Avoid sodas and candy.
* Eat fresh fruits and vegetables every day.
* Choose sandwiches and fresh salads instead of “fast food”.
* Drink plenty of pure water every day.
* Get at least 20 minutes of exercise every day.
* Take your kids to the market and teach them about their food.
* Have them help in the kitchen. Involve them in healthy menu planning.
* Plant a garden, make a compost pile, watch your food grow.

These shifts in diet and lifestyle are most effective if there is a community of like-minded individuals supporting one another. Clearly, in the case of childhood obesity, prevention is the key and shifting food choices in a healthy direction is a great place to start. Creating community around healthy eating practices and lifestyle choices strengthens the program while creating a group support system which helps to hold the dietary and lifestyle shifts in place.There are many ways to create community which supports healthy lifestyle choices. Join or form a food/garden club in the local school. Start a recycling or composting program. Share food tips through the school newsletters. Gather with other parents and share health and nutrition information. Create agreements to support each other in creating a nourishing community for the children. Look to the Edible Schoolyard model to bring a school garden program into your local schoolyard. Through making every choice we make a choice towards greater health and wellness, we create a bridge into a healthier and more vital future for our children, ourselves, and our communities.About the Author

Karen Saura is a Master Herbalist graduate of The School of Natural Healing, teacher and holistic nutritional counselor. She emphasizes the use of whole, organic foods, nutritive herbs and supplements to promote optimal health, prevent disease, manage chronic illness and to rediscover the joy of healthy eating. Phone consultations are available. To set up an appointment with Karen, leave a message at (925) 286-2445 or e-mail: rainbowdreamspeak@yahoo.com .

References

Artz, M. (2004) Organic school lunch program expands in California. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Daily Planet. Retrieved, February 13, 2005 from http://www.organicconsumers.org/school/school-lunch.cfm

California Center for Public Health Advocacy, (2002). National consensus panel on school nutrition: recommendations for competitive food standards in California schools. Davis, CA: California Center for Public Health Advocacy.

Center for Food and Justice. (2005). Media Coverage. Occidental, CA: Occidental College. Retrieved February 13, 2005, from http://www.farmtoschool.org/ca/media.htm

Crane, E. (2005) The incredible edible schoolyard. District Administration. Retrieved February 2, 2005, from http://www.districtadministration.com/page.cfm?p=434

Lambert, C. (2004). The way we eat now. Harvard Magazine (May-June 2004), pg. 50- 58, 98.

Martin Luther King Middle School (2002). The edible schoolyard - history. Berkeley, CA: Edible Schoolyard. Retrieved February 2, 2005, from http://www.edibleschoolyard.org/history.html

McManus, R. (2004). Interview: Alice Waters. Sierra Magazine, Nov/Dec2004. Retrieved February 2, 2005, from http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/200411/interview.asp

Nestle, M., Dixon, L. (2004) Taking Sides: clashing views on controversial issues in food and nutrition. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Oritz. (2003). En-act-2003. California Center for Public Health Advocacy. Retrieved February 14, 2005 from http://www.cfpa.net/ENACT/SB677factsheet.PDF

Strategic Alliance (n.d.) Environmental nutrition and activity community enactment strategies: schools. Oakland, CA: Strategic Alliance. Retrieved February 13, 2004 from http://www.preventioninstitute.org/sa/enactpriorities_S_2b.html

Woodend, D. (n.d.) Food for thought. England: Organic Food.Co.uk. Retrieved, February 2, 2005 from http://www.organicfood.co.uk/stories/foodforthought.html