That’s Not Brain Fuel School food and the obesity epidemic – Part One

    By Jamie Hudson

    Looking at the average food served each day in local schools it is no wonder this generation of children is expected to live shorter lives than their parents. The average heavily processed, greasy, and sugar-filled school food is not proper fuel for children’s bodies and minds.

    In a three-part series, we will look at how significant improvements in school district accountability, kitchen staff education, funding, and parent involvement could enable schools to serve healthier meals to students and improve the worsening obesity epidemic.

    The CDC claims that obesity-related health conditions are among the leading causes of preventable death. It also states that in the U.S 14.4 million individuals between 2-19 years old are considered obese. With the rise in the consumption of processed and unhealthy foods comes the rise in obesity and health problems for the nation’s children.

    Childhood obesity has been a rising problem for decades. The chart below from the CDC’s website displays the growth of the childhood obesity epidemic from 1963 to 2018.

    We must care for the health and wellness of the next generation, and by not providing each student with nutritious food at school, schools are worsening the obesity epidemic.

    On the West Ada School District website, you can view the meal options for elementary and secondary students. Online menus for high school students show breakfast options like Fat Cat Scone, Pop Tarts, Muffin Tops, Mini Cinnis, chocolate milk, and Maple Madness Waffles. Lunch options include “stuff with,” pizza rippers, cheeseburgers, stuffed cheese breadsticks, chicken nuggets, Uncrustable sandwiches, and chicken & gravy.

    Online menus for West Ada elementary schools have similar options: Pop Tarts, Mini Cinnis, Bar ZZ Birthday Cake, chocolate milk, and Raises. These sugar-filled options are not healthy ways to fuel a child for a day of learning. Beans, since they are a legume, are even considered a vegetable in lunch options to cover nutrition requirements. Cheeseburgers, sloppy joes, corn dogs, pizza, chicken and gravy, chicken nuggets, and stuffwiches are lunch options throughout the month.

    While not exhaustive lists, these menus show many highly processed food options served to students. These examples reflect issues at public schools across the nation.

    A national health and nutrition examination survey, using nationally representative data from What we eat in America (WWEIA), found that consuming large quantities of added sugars increases one’s risk of:

    • Weight gain
    • Obesity
    • Type 2 diabetes
    • Higher serum triglycerides
    • High blood cholesterol
    • Unhealthy blood pressure
    • Hypertension
    • Stroke
    • Coronary heart disease
    • Cancer

    A distinct correlation was found between the amount of ultra-processed foods consumed and the dietary content of added sugars. Ultra-processed foods contain excess ingredients like salt, sugar, preservatives, chemical additives, oils, and fats. They also may include additives to mimic the flavor of healthier, minimally processed foods to trick consumers into believing that what they are eating is good for them.

    This study suggests that because almost 60% of calories and 90% of added sugars consumed in the U.S. come from ultra-processed foods, limiting these foods in the U.S. diet would be highly effective in reducing sugar consumption. The study encourages replacing ultra-processed foods with minimally processed and freshly prepared foods including fruits, nuts, whole grains, and vegetables.

    In the coming months, we will also explore the huge role parents play in teaching their children about healthy eating and providing a strong nutritional foundation. The series will end with a look at the barriers faced by schools in being able to provide healthy food that students will eat. It will detail one amazing public school that is actively doing everything within its power to make the change to healthy, made-from-scratch meals and discuss how parent involvement is necessary to push the change into action.

    Schools, parents, and legislative authorities must work together to encourage healthier choices for children if we are to battle this local and national health crisis. Healthy alternatives must replace unhealthy options throughout schools in the U.S. to help reverse the growing obesity epidemic in our nation’s children.

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