Lunch money dilemmas: M&Ms or meatloaf?

Given the choice for lunch, most children would choose:

A. M&Ms and Diet Coke.

B. Meatloaf and steamed carrots.

Duh. That's a no-brainer, says Houston seventh-grader, Jackson Hime, whose mother recently resorted to setting up a school-cafeteria tab so that he couldn't use his lunch money on vending-machine soda and candy.

While parents like Jackson's might not even know the choice exists, let alone approve of it, many schools inadvertently make option "A" a very real choice. Junk food is effectively a part of school menus. The vast majority of public schools – elementary to high school – have vending machines filled with soft drinks and sweets. School stores sell plenty of potato chips and popsicles. And even school cafeterias offer greasy fries and doughnuts.

With childhood obesity rates setting records nationwide – and health experts concerned that this is a health-care crisis in the making – states are taking aim at schools that peddle junk food to students:

• Texas, for instance, is the latest state to adopt the US Department of Agriculture regulations for the sale of "foods of minimal nutritional value," such as sodas, gum, hard candy, and popsicles. These foods cannot be sold during lunch hour or in school cafeterias. Candy bars, potato chips, and french fries don't fall under the ban because they contain some nutritional value.

• After legislation banning junk food in Kentucky schools failed to pass, the state's largest district, the Jefferson County Board of Education, wants to go further than national standards and eliminate candy bars, doughnuts, and other low-nutritional, high-fat foods from its cafeterias, vending machines, and school stores.

• In Coronado, Calif., middle-schoolers have access to sodas only three days a week because parents called for a total ban and then agreed to a school-board compromise. Starting in 2004, soda will be banned in all California middle schools.

"As policy makers, the one place we have authority to control this problem is on school campuses," says Harold Goldstein, director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy in Davis. "We can't control what's taught at home, but as a society we should work to change the habits being taught in school."

"States and local school districts have the authority to go beyond the USDA and a lot of states are doing that as they look at the rising rates of obesity and diseases in kids," says Margo Wootan, director of nutritional policy with the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have passed laws stricter than the USDA regulations. But there is still room for improvement, says Ms. Wootan.

Financially pressed schools actually make money on junk food sales to pay for everything from band uniforms to computers, she says. So most schools have vending machines: 98 percent of high school, 75 percent of middle schools, and 40 percent of elementary schools.

"We recognize that schools are facing financial pressures, but it would be very shortsighted for us to fund our schools at the expense of our children's health," she Wootan.

Back in Houston, Elaine Hime says Jackson's assistant principal called her several months ago to complain that his lunch was always two candy bars and a Coke. Ms. Hime had no clue Jackson spent his lunch money that way.

"I was real concerned when I found out. That is not the kind of thing I want him to be eating. But he's in seventh grade. I can tell him to buy cafeteria food, but that doesn't mean he's going to buy it," she says. So she worked out a system in which she pays the cafeteria $20 directly periodically, and Jackson must eat what they serve – something he calls "ordinary food."

"None of the stuff they serve is very good," says Jackson. "Today, I had pizza and milk. But the rest of the stuff is nasty, like peas and apples. No one eats that stuff."

Jackson says most of the kids at school don't eat the ordinary lunch, opting instead for chips, sugary fruit drinks, or sodas, and candy. He hasn't had any of that in a while, he says, but insists "it's just better."

But his mother is still frustrated that junk food is available at school: "I think it's totally ironic that the schools are asking parents to solve the problem when they won't solve it themselves. Given the choice between good food and junk food, kids are always going to choose junk food. So if schools think it's affecting kids, why are they selling it?"

The national statistics, from the Centers for Disease Control, are what cause concern: 13 percent of adolescents are overweight or obese (more than double the number two decades ago), and the fastest growing obesity rates are among children between the ages of 6 and 11.

"We, as a society, will pay dearly, not only in the productive lives of these children, but in health-care dollars needed to treat them if we don't really own this problem," says Roberta Anding, a Texas Children's Hospital dietician.

She says while many schools are beginning to recognize the problem – both in regard to the foods they serve and the amount of physical exercise they provide – laying the blame entirely on them isn't fair.

"Kids tell me they drink sodas and eat candy at school and then do the same thing when they get home," says Ms. Anding. "Parents need to make wiser choices as well."

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