Can we fix the obesity epidemic?

While hunger is a huge issue, the irony is that obesity is at epidemic levels not only in the U.S. but also worldwide. The statistics are sobering and the health and economic costs of this epidemic are huge, as this PBS cheat-sheet reveals. In an update to their 2003 preventive healthcare recommendations, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force advised that doctors screen all of their patients for obesity. The biggest update to the Department of Agriculture federal school food guidelines in 15 years takes place this fall. On the front lines of providing nutritious lunches that meet federal guidelines are the cafeteria managers. To implement the guidelines, the managers attended a School Nutrition Association Conference in Denver this past summer.

 Back in May, I wrote about the annual Food Revolution Day and provided resources that promote awareness and the need for lifestyle changes. We should all applaud Jamie Oliver, who spearheads the Food Revolution campaign, for using his celebrity to tackle this huge issue. How about attacking obesity by transforming our kid’s school breakfasts and lunches? In addressing the hunger issue, there’s a huge debate about providing free breakfasts in our nation’s public schools, because many school children are either overweight or obese. The concern about providing free breakfasts in public schools is that adding more calories into a diet could inadvertently exacerbate the obesity epidemic because the obese kids would eat two breakfasts each day!

Nonetheless, I doubt anyone would quibble that healthy meals build healthy minds, which is the belief of Progressive Catering & School Gardens. Progressive Catering & School Gardens is a hot lunch program that offers homemade lunches with only fresh vegetables and fresh fruits. Check-out their Facebook page where the photos look good enough to eat! Their catering service is based on “homemade” rather than processed food. Their mission is to provide school kids with quality homemade food which in term enhances the possibility they’ll make lifelong healthy food choices. If you don’t believe that one person can make a difference, you’ll change your mind after you take a look at Progressive Catering’s YouTube video. Here is more information about how it all happened.

Another example of how one person can transform school lunch menus at the grassroots and then go on to stimulate big policy changes from the top-down is agtivist, Andrea Northup, who launched the D.C. Farm to School Network, a nonprofit dedicated to providing healthier school food in public and charter schools in our nation’s capital.  She had a principal role in the passage and implementation of the landmark Healthy Schools Act of 2010, which provides financial incentives to schools that serve local food and offer nutrition education in the classroom. She also was honored with a Natural Resources Defense Council Growing Green Award in the Young Food Leader category. Another helpful non-profit organization is the National Farm to School Network which connects schools (K-12) and local farms, even urban farms, to promote serving healthy meals in school cafeterias, improving student nutrition, providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and supporting local and regional farmers.

 

While, exercise is the key to burning off excess calories, it is also important to understand about daily food choices. Obesity isn’t just a kids issue in school lunches. Schools are targeting different aspects of students’ environments like vending machines. States are getting more involved too, although Mayor Bloomberg’s war on supersized, sugary sodas is dodging flak, especially from the soft drink companies. Even big corporations that market food to kids, like Disney, are getting the message. The company previously launched the Disney Magic of Healthy Living initiative with the promise to help the nation make kids healthier. It looks like Mickey and Minnie Mouse are adopting a healthier lifestyle too! Fast food chains are adjusting their menus to give us a few more healthy options, but they could do much more. These efforts are all on the right track, but it’s clear that obesity is a hugely complex problem with no one magic bullet.

As role models for our kids, we should keep in mind how important it is for us to promote good nutrition not just at school, but also in the home. Concerned parents need to stay informed about nutritional qualities in cereals and read labels. Become a locavore and patronize your local farmer’s market. Set aside a time for one meal during the busy week where the entire family can sit down at table, with no interruptions which means taking a time-out from technology to stay focused on family sharing. Exhibit other healthy behaviors. If you are a smoker or drink too much, stop now! This is the game changer in the health of kids. They watch and emulate you! Getting enough exercise is a huge part of the obesity epidemic so exercise with your kids and enroll them in after-school programs. The power of peer pressure can be beneficial, in particular for elementary schoolchildren, according to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times on after-school programs.

Healthy kids are our future. It’s our responsibility to surround them with the best possible environment within our power so they can go on to live fulfilling and healthy lives.


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