Every day I take a significant amount of time to prepare food for my family. I use what my kids like to refer to as "ingredients" over packaged food. I read labels and like to think I’m pretty informed about the foods that I choose for my family to consume. I also attempt to educate my kids on the importance of thinking about the foods that we put into our bodies, even when it means using the age-old "you'll thank me when you're older" line.
However, once a week this all goes out the window.
My daughter's school offers a hot lunch program which runs one day a week, and I have to admit, this is when she gets to eat the junky food that I typically give a flat out "no" to. While from time to time there are healthy choices, with a token package of apple slices or carrots and dip thrown in, the bulk of the options consist of pizza, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and tacos.
Usually, I break due to the vision of every kid in the classroom chowing down on a "really cool" lunch, while my little girl is sadly poking at her less-than-glamorous brown rice and veggie stir-fry. And, while I take full responsibility for filling out the hot lunch order form every time it comes around, it does beg the question, “Why do we need to be encouraging our kids to be consuming more "treats," and at the cost of their health?” Plus, quite honestly, I don't think these meals are the exceptional indulgence for most kids.
I'm certainly not abdicating parents of their responsibilities. I just find it ironic that the institutions we send our children to each day, with the idea that they are being provided with the skills and knowledge needed to go out into the world successfully, are offering this counterproductive message.
I mean, no wonder there is such an epidemic of obesity in middle school children, elementary school children, and even high school kids. Teaching that "fun" lunches have to be unhealthy doesn't exactly mesh with the goal of showing children how to make positive, healthful choices.
And, educators aren't in the dark about healthy eating. I received a newsletter from my daughter's teacher asking parents to refrain from sending sugary snacks or drinks from home (a great idea in my opinion). But, doesn't that make these hot lunches a little more ironic? If there is an understanding that children focus much better when they skip the juice box and the fruit snacks, why can't schools offer healthier alternatives?
Of course, this answer may seem simple, but there are a number of reasons why this isn't the case at most schools. Corporate sponsorship (now banned in many places), for example, can bring dollars into schools, but also unhealthy choices (such as sodas) into on-site vending machines.
Hot lunch programs are also known fundraising gold mines. Instead of offering healthy foods, schools can offer the much more popular junk food options, and raise more money for much-needed equipment, supplies, or field trips.
Additionally, many cafeterias operate on shrinking budgets, forcing them to purchase from large food production companies, which is why you see big business bankrolling legislation in the U.S., with the aim of keeping a status quo that allows French fries and pizza sauce to be considered vegetables within school lunch programs. Looking at this, I can imagine that pitting the data on school lunches compared to childhood obesity statistics could reveal some pretty significant parallels.
It's no secret that these issues are contributing to the fact that childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last 30 years. And more frightening than this, former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona has warned that children today may be the first generation to face a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
Pretty scary stuff, if you ask me.
Maybe that's why controversial ads like this one are the extreme step being taken by one health care agency in Georgia, a state that is experiencing a phenomenal growth in childhood obesity rates.