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A Helping of Behavior Change With Lunch

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, October 11, 2012

New Law, Shape Up Somerville, and a French Lesson

Under the newly implemented Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act schools are required to serve nourishing lunches with fewer calories, less fat and mandatory fruits and vegetables. But legislation can’t make kids eat what’s good for them, and often they won’t.

Across the country youngsters who miss their habitual chocolate milk, cookies, french-fries and cheese nachos are rebelling by slipping away to buy junk food from school vending machines and off campus merchants, and brown bagging goodies from home. Some student have posted YouTube videos mocking the meals, singing protest songs, and feigning collapse from hunger.

A New York Times story by Vivian Yee describes a lunch strike in a Pittsburgh suburb and a boycott in town near Milwaukee. In New Jersey more than 1,200 people have joined a Facebook group urging Parsippany Hills High School students to boycott school lunches. The Times story is accompanied by a photo showing the mandatory vegetables and fruits in the lunch room trash.

While there formerly was no restriction on calories, new requirements limit high school lunches to 850 calories, and middle school lunches to 700 calories. Elementary school lunches are limited to 650 calories. Kids who throw away substantial portions will have even fewer calories. If schools still serve fries and pizza, the portions are smaller, have less fat, and the pizza is likely to have whole wheat crust and low fat cheese. Portions of meats and carbohydrates are smaller and fruits and vegetables aren’t always appreciated. Obesity is known to cause and exacerbate many chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart trouble and cancer, and obesity an chronic illnesses in the U.S. have been increasing for decades. The CDC reports that some 12.5 million children and adolescents between ages 2 and 19 are obese-that’s 17 percent of that age group, and poor kids are especially prone to obesity. Among low income preschool children, the CDC reports, one in seven is obese.

What can influence youngsters to like eating eat what’s good for them? The Times story quotes William McCarthy, a professor of public health and psychology at the university of California at Los Angeles. He says research shows kids need to be exposed to vegetables 10 to 12 times before they will start to eat them on their own, so one strategy is just waiting. Several school districts are providing lessons about healthy eating in class, offering free samples, creating gardens kids can tend, and educating students about locally grown food.

Even before the recent law, some efforts have been intense and long range. Shape Up Somerville, Eat Smart Play Hard, funded by the CDC, began in 2002 as a three-year environmental change initiative designed to prevent obesity in early elementary school children. Tufts University researchers found that nearly half of the school district’s first graders were overweight or at high risk of being overweight. The initiative, led by Tuft’s Christine Economos, PhD, involved the whole community-schools, restaurants, businesses, and families, and emphasized exercise and play as well as healthy food. The body mass index of participating children declined, and community support continues.

The French are proud of their cuisine, and public schools in France are serious about promoting appreciation for healthy food as well as practice in the social graces of eating. Even young children receive several courses with small portions, and they sample traditional face such as escargot, bouillabaisse, and ratatouille. A CBS news story illustrates a public philosophy and the dedication of chefs. Karen LeBillon is a teacher, author and mother who blogs about French school food, describing among other delicacies the beets, goat cheese, fish, fruit and freshly baked bread being served to youngsters in public schools in Paris. In some schools, parents have chosen to pay extra for organic meals. Obesity has increased in France, although the rate of obesity among children and adults is lower than it is in other European countries and the U.S.

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