Last week I attended a second “Nutrition Strategy” meeting here in my Houston school district. As I described last month, these meetings bring together a variety of stakeholders in our community — people within HISD, public policy experts, urban farmers, parents and more — to discuss HISD’s role in improving childhood nutrition and wellness. While we’ve only just started the process, I’m feeling optimistic that real change could come out of these discussions.
At one point in the last meeting, we honed the team’s nutrition and wellness mission statement and then discussed how we should go about measuring our eventual success in carrying out our mission. The discussion quickly turned to using students’ BMI data, information which is routinely collected at all of our schools. At this point, though, I interrupted. What I said, in essence, was that it would be fantastic if HISD’s health and wellness efforts could show an actual reduction in overall student obesity — indeed, our Food Services Director would probably find himself on the national news if we could pull that off — but obesity is such a multifaceted problem that it seemed unlikely that we could actually show a measurable effect from the schools alone. (The group agreed with me, although we will certainly still look at student BMI data and hope to see a change for the better.)
That’s why I was glad to read writer/blogger Jane Black’s entry in Slate magazine’s crowd-sourcing effort to combat childhood obesity. Entitled “School Lunch is Not the Answer,” Black lays out very effectively the reasons why this is so:
. . . parents are the real shapers of children’s eating habits; kids learn what to eat at home. Frequent, sit-down, home-cooked family meals—with the television off and parents and children engaged in conversation about the day’s events, the food, etc.—are key to developing a healthy lifestyle. . . . On the flipside, parents who follow marketers’ cues and serve “kids’ food” (such as Dora the Explorer yogurt and all varieties of chicken nuggets) raise children who may be resistant to trying new foods that are not as intrinsically appealing as the high-sugar, high-fat alternatives they’ve been weaned on.
Schools can only do so much to compete with the $10 billion annual bombardment of food advertising and the steady diet of burgers, fries, pizza, and chicken nuggets those ads are pushing. Moreover, to make their numbers, schools must serve food that the kids—their customers—are willing to pay for.
I encourage you to read the rest of Jane’s entry, which also discusses the pragmatic reasons why school food became the focus of the Obama administration and other anti-obesity activists, even if improving school food is not going to be a panacea in the obesity battle.
Meanwhile, don’t forget that YOU have a voice in the Slate crowd-sourcing effort, too. As I described last week, this “Hive” is open to all, so stop by Slate and leave an entry if you have something to say.
[Hat tip to Chef Ann Cooper for alerting me to Jane Black’s entry.]
[Ed Update: One of the hazards of my habit of blogging at 6:30am, before my morning coffee (sort like blogger “drunk dialing”) is that I don’t always fully flesh out my thoughts before hitting “publish.” And one absolutely critical point left out here (indeed, it’s so important to me that it was the subject of my very first post on TLT) is that schools are a key learning environment for children re: food and nutrition. So even if consumption of the food itself is not resulting in a shift in obesity measures, the food is still sending kids a daily message about what constitutes sound eating (though schools often bungle that message, as when HISD serves pepperoni pizza and mashed potatoes at the same lunch). For that reason alone, of course, we need to improve school food. My narrower point was simply that we can’t expect that simply “fixing” school food will result in a sudden disappearance of childhood obesity.]