, Muskogee, OK

February 12, 2013

School changes push healthy eating

By Doug Walton
Fresh at the Market

— Students and teachers at most schools across Muskogee County and throughout the state have seen some noticeable changes in the foods being offered in their cafeteria lines this school year. New USDA requirements for healthier school meals took effect on Oct. 1, and many schools participating in the National School Meal Program had already begun making improvements in the types and amounts of foods being offered.

A primary reason for the new school meal guidelines is the growing number of children and young adults facing serious health challenges related to what they eat and drink. For the first time in two centuries, the current generation of children in America may have shorter life expectancies than their parents, according to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

It seems a virtual perfect storm of contributing factors are putting our kids at greater risk for life-shortening chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and stroke. As a society, we’re eating and drinking more calories than ever recorded, many of them empty of any nutrients, while not getting nearly enough physical activity.

Other factors influencing Oklahoman’s food-related health outcomes include frequent exposure to advertising for unhealthy foods, more frequent snacking between meals with ever larger portion sizes, lack of time and skills to prepare healthy meals, poverty and food insecurity, and for some people, a lack of convenient access to affordable and nutritious foods.

As a simple example of just one of these factors — with billions of dollars spent each year in the U.S. on food and beverage advertising, when is the last time you saw an ad for fruits or veggies?

With one third of Oklahoma’s youth and two thirds of our adults either overweight or obese, efforts to encourage healthier food and beverage choices where we live, work, learn and play will be needed to overcome the often unrelenting temptations to choose otherwise.

Because of all these considerations, public health officials and other leaders believe it is very important that the meals and snacks served to children in schools are as healthy as possible, so that students can learn from consistent messages and experiences that strong and healthy bodies lead to sharp minds and bright futures.

“Improving the quality of the school meals is a critical step in building a healthy future for our kids,” said Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. “When it comes to our children, we must do everything possible to provide them the nutrition they need to be healthy, active and ready to face the future.”

But changing preferences away from foods high in fat, sugar or other flavor-enhancing additives is no easy task, given that over three-fourths of youth in Oklahoma eat less than three servings of fruits or vegetables each day, and over 25% drink two or more sodas a day, according to surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control.

School meal programs already have a tall order just feeding hungry students everyday with limited time and budgets, and they will need help from parents and all of us to promote healthy eating habits not only at school but at home, in workplaces and throughout the community.