RODALE NEWS, WASHINGTON, DC—In a few short sentences, First Lady Michelle Obama gave the women (and men) who are responsible for what children eat in school a shout-out that should keep them revved up for the rest of the school year.
Speaking in Washington on Monday to the annual meeting of the School Nutrition Association, she said, "I know that you don't always get a lot of credit and recognition for what you do—and you deserve it." She went on to characterize the school cafeteria as "one of the most important classrooms in the entire school," noting that kids don't stop learning at lunchtime. "Every day," she said, "with the food you serve, you're teaching them these critical lessons about nutrition and healthy eating. You're shaping their habits and their preferences, and you're affecting the choices that they're going to make for the rest of their lives."
Marian Burros reports on the First Lady's antiobesity campaign:
Your Family Can Lose Weight on the Michelle Obama Plan
Can Michelle Obama Shrink America's Waistlines?
White House Unveils Huge Solutions for America's Weighty Problem
Are You Part of the Food Revolution?
First Lady Praises Food Success Stories
THE DETAILS: Lessons learned in school cafeterias aren't always the best ones; there has been some pretty bad food in school lunches over the years. And, in some places, there still is: too much sugar, too much salt, too much fat. The only green vegetables may be canned green beans, which school nutrition directors say is the item on the lunch plate that kids are most likely to toss into the garbage. (Who can blame them?) Add to that the junk food that many schools offer in vending machines, in school stores, and during sporting events.
But Mrs. Obama chose to focus on the positive activity taking place in school cafeterias around the country, much of it in the last couple of years, with efforts to produce healthier, more appealing meals. Such efforts make up one of the key components of Mrs. Obama's new Let's Move campaign, which she hopes will abolish childhood obesity in a generation.
And, as she has at past events promoting Let's Move, Mrs. Obama said the blame for the obesity epidemic rests squarely on the head of the adults. "Our kids didn't do this to themselves," she told the audience. "They don't decide what food to serve—or what is sold at lunch. Our kids don't decide whether there's time for recess or gym. They don't decide whether they'll learn about healthy eating or nutrition in school. They don't make those decisions. We set those priorities."
WHAT IT MEANS: If the childhood-obesity epidemic is to truly be reversed, schools will have to play a role. And the impact of what kids eat at school goes beyond calories and fat. It affects eating habits kids may carry with them for the rest of their lives. The First Lady reminded the audience that children who eat lunch and breakfast at school get about half their daily calories from those meals. That means, she said: "That all of you have as much influence on what our kids eat each day as their parents do."
Some schools are already trying to put that influence to good use. Mrs. Obama mentioned a few of the many things schools all over the country are doing to improve meals: serving more fresh fruits and vegetables through farm-to-school programs that are springing up all over the country; cooking more food from scratch, making it possible to control the amount of salt and fat that is used. Even something as simple as requiring elementary-school teachers to eat with their classes can help.
If you're concerned about the food your children eat at school, here are some steps you can take:
• Approach food as a family. One way to counteract any bad food lessons your kids are getting at school is to involve them in the meals they eat at home. Bring them food shopping and talk to them about choosing nutritious food. Start a vegetable garden, so they can experience where food really comes from and how good fresh vegetables taste. Eat together at the family table, with the television turned OFF so that everyone can enjoy the food and the family time.
• Eat at the school. You can talk to the school's food service director to find out how the meal plans are chosen. Or, to really understand what's happening with your children's meals, go to the school and eat lunch in the cafeteria. It's a great motivator, says Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District and "Renegade Lunch Lady."
• Get help. For tips and advice on making a positive change at your child's school, check out Cooper's "Lunch Lessons."
Published on: March 2, 2010