Tuesday, October 28, 2008

No recess for nutrition

It’s hard enough to get adults to eat a healthy diet — and we’re supposed to know better. Ensuring children have access to healthy foods and encouraging them to actually eat those healthy foods is a whole other animal.

Panelists at Tuesday afternoon’s session “School Food Innovations: Making Sustainable Change” discussed the challenges and opportunities for improving our nation’s school food environment.
Despite the unfortunate (and all too common) lack of nutrition education in her school district in Charlottesville, Va., Alicia Cost raised awareness of healthy meal choices in a pilot program called C.H.O.I.C.E.S. (Creating Healthy Opportunities and Initiatives in the Cafeteria for Everyone).

Meals and side items were assigned a red, yellow or green stoplight symbol based on federal fat and saturated fat standards, and signs and posters were placed in the cafeteria to show students how to put meal components together to create a healthier meal. Although there were no observed decreases in purchases of “red” menu items at the school for fifth- and sixth-graders during the study period, students did show increased understanding of nutrition, and Cost is hopeful that with increased education and funding, a larger impact can be realized.

Another school food challenge is marketing within schools, as described by Lisa Kraypo of Samuels and Associates, a California-based public health research firm. From the obvious ads on beverage vending machines in high schools to the more subtle scholarship and fundraising programs, companies want their brand to be known from an early age. An example is a fundraising effort called McDonald’s McTeacher’s Night, where teachers work at a McDonald’s and encourage students and their families to eat dinner at the restaurant to raise money for the school.

But foods within the schools aren’t the only concern when it comes to childhood nutrition. Marnie Pureil, of the Built Environment and Health Project at Columbia University, studied the proximity of fast food restaurants and convenience stores to urban schools in New York City and found that zoning differences and other features of the built environment account for the higher prevalence of inexpensive, energy-dense food near schools serving low-income and ethnic groups at greater risk of obesity.

What do you think are the biggest challenges in improving childhood nutrition? The incessant ads for gooey candies and sugary snacks? The lack of nutrition education in schools? Or improving parents’ commitment to healthy diets for their kids (and understanding what that means)?

— P.T.

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