Nutritious school lunches can be weapon against obesity

Thurston County school districts have implemented recent changes to the National School Lunch Program that put increased emphasis on healthful foods – more fruits and vegetables, fewer mystery burgers and high-fat dairy. French fries are out, salad is in.

So far, there have been no reports of student protests. But the question remains: Will more nutritious school lunches reverse a trend toward doubling the state’s obesity rate by 2030?

A report from the Trust for America’s Health last month predicted that Washington’s obesity rate will jump from 27 percent to 56 percent over the next 18 years unless we start eating better and exercising more. As shocking as those numbers are, the waistlines in 32 other states are projected to grow even faster.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on average, 36 percent of Americans are obese. For many years prior to 1980, the obesity rate remained flat at 15 percent.

The 2030 projections are based, in large part, on the alarming number of overweight and obese children. For the first time in history, young people are being diagnosed with adult diseases, such as type-2 diabetes, caused by oversized portions, poor food choices, and a trend toward less physical activity.

If we don’t do something to change young people’s attitude toward nutrition, the America’s Health prediction might prove to be on the low side.

As Lisa Pemberton reported this week, the food and nutrition departments of Thurston County school districts are working hard to provide healthful meals and meet the new school lunch program requirements. We hope they are successful, because it won’t be easy.

Providing fresher foods is more costly than the processed meals, and there’s no guarantee that kids raised on fried fast foods will find them delicious enough to resist the temptation to buy junk food at a nearby corner store.

Fast-food restaurants are starting to get the message, too.

McDonald’s recently added each item’s calorie count to its menu board, as Subway, Panera and others starting doing long ago. It is an encouraging sign that chains are recognizing profitable opportunities by marketing healthful offerings.

It’s going to take time to change the culture, and school lunch menus are only one of many factors.

Kids are influenced primarily by what they eat away from school, primarily at home. If those habits include mostly the addictive tastes of high-fat foods, schools are fighting an uphill battle.

It’s worth the fight, however, to expose children to what nutritious meals look like. They will be better off if just some of that information carries over into their adult lives.

Alicia Neal, in charge of North Thurston School District’s food and nutrition services, acknowledges the role parents can play in changing their children’s eating habits. “We encourage (parents eating lunch with their children at school) because school meals have changed so much, and it’s a good opportunity for parents to actually see what’s going on.”

And, what Neal didn’t say is that a school lunch visit might also impact meals at home.

Some schools offer prepaid card systems that allow parents to monitor their child’s food purchases at school over the Internet. That sounds a little Big Brotherish, but children are less likely to become overweight when parents pay attention.

A school lunch may not be the only meal a child has every day, but for some it is the most complete and, for that reason, the most influential on future eating habits.