Give Kids a Chance to Eat Wisely

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, April 24, 2007

You know how hard it can be to say no. Our tendency to accept what we're offered may have value when it comes to encouraging children to choose -- and eat -- healthier food at school. A new report suggests a simple, low-cost approach: Just offer it to them.

That's the conclusion of a pilot program in Guilford, Conn., where school cafeteria servers were trained to ask elementary school students, "Would you like fruit or juice with your lunch?" Ninety percent of the children said yes. What's more, 80 percent then consumed the fruit or juice that they put on their trays.

Compare those numbers with students at a nearby school who served as the experiment's control group. At lunch, the same fruit and juice was available, but it wasn't personally offered to the kids. The difference? Just 60 percent of these students reached for fruit or juice.

Those findings "have pretty significant implications," says the pilot program's designer, Marlene Schwartz, director of research and school programs at Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. They suggest, she says, that if the National School Lunch Program were to modify its regulations and had servers actually encourage children to eat fruit and vegetables, their consumption might increase.

It's that kind of simple strategy that school administrators, government officials and parents seek to help stem the childhood obesity epidemic. An estimated 16 percent of children and teens are overweight or obese, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Each year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides 9 million breakfasts and 30 million lunches to students. Some experts say that the quality of those meals can vary. School cafeterias aren't required, for example, to serve food that meets the 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines -- a situation that the USDA says it hopes to change this year. The USDA also plans multibillion-dollar efforts to expand the consumption of fruit and vegetables in school cafeterias over the next 10 years.

But none of those changes address what many say is a major hurdle to improving school nutrition: the sale of so-called competitive foods in school vending machines, school stores, at school fundraisers and in school snack bars. There are no USDA regulations dictating the quality of these foods and beverages, although schools are obligated to have wellness policies that include nutrition goals.

To close the loophole for competitive school foods, Congress has commissioned the Institute of Medicine to write the first set of recommended guidelines for the sale of this food and drink in schools. That report, from an expert panel, is due to be released this week.

Some schools aren't waiting.

· In 2004, Montgomery County school officials established nutritional standards for competitive foods, regulating portion size, fat and sugar content. Sodas and candies that don't meet the standards "are banned overall," notes Tracy Fox, a registered dietitian and school food policy consultant who helped craft the standards.

· At the Promise Academy in Harlem in New York City, nearly 700 mostly low-income students dine daily on healthy meals that are low in sodium and fat. Breakfast offerings include hot, whole-grain cereal, whole-wheat waffles and French toast with turkey sausage. Rather than syrup, students get fruit toppings.

Lunch includes such healthy fare as whole-grain pasta with meat sauce and baked free-range chicken with yellow rice and zucchini. For snacks, students get fruit, vegetables and other healthy offerings, since "there are no vending machines in the building," notes Marty Lipp, communications director of the public charter school. "There's also no cake, ice cream or cookies, and no outside foods are allowed in."

As might be expected, "there certainly are kids who complain about this or that, or won't eat certain things," Lipp notes. "But it is an educational process. Some kids are seeing foods for the first time, like spinach pasta or even things like broccoli."

Promise Academy officials point out that helping students and their families improve their eating habits is a matter of health: 42 percent of the 176 middle school students -- more than three times the national average -- are already overweight or obese. That puts them at increased risk of high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and other weight-related health problems.

Students are also weighed and measured regularly. "The goal," Lipp notes, "is to keep their body mass index constant over three years so that as they grow taller, they don't gain weight."

· In California, chef Ann Cooper -- nicknamed the "Renegade Lunch Lady" -- is director of nutrition services for the 16 schools in the Berkeley Unified School District. "We don't serve food that is very out of the ordinary," Cooper notes. "We just do it healthier."

So roasted chicken or "oven fried" chicken that contains no added fat has replaced greasy chicken fingers; baked and roasted potatoes are served in place of french fries. There are organic granola bars, fresh and dried fruit, Newman's whole-grain pretzels and organic crackers with occasional cheese for snacks.

"Kids don't necessarily like change," Cooper notes. "Nobody does. So you really have to work with them. But when they get to help cook the food and grow it and talk about it, it makes it much easier."

And, she notes, "the food has to taste good."

Meet Sally Squires, author of the new paperback edition of "Secrets of the Lean Plate Club" (St. Martin's Press) and 20 other Washington Post authors today as they sign copies of their books from 6 to 9 p.m. at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW.

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