Friday, January 23, 2009

Health Care and School Nutrition

Sixty schools throughout the United States have instituted a nutrition program aimed at promoting increased fruit and vegetable consumption according to ArcaMax Health and reported by the Fort Worth, TX, Star Telegram. And, according to the National Dairy Council (NDC), the breakfast and lunch programs offered through your school do more than provide a meal and satisfy your child's hunger during the day. They help meet your child's daily nutrient needs and maximize his or her potential for learning. Studies show that eating school breakfast and school lunch is associated with improved academic performance. According to the Journal of the National Dietetic Association, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), created in 1946, currently operates in nearly all public and many private schools in the United States, providing subsidized meals to more than 30 million children each school day. More than 10 million children also take advantage of the School Breakfast Program (SBP), which became a permanent federal program in 1975.

The NDC reports that a healthy breakfast is an essential part of being prepared to learn. Yet, today's fast-paced lifestyle sometimes prevents children from eating a balanced breakfast before heading off to school. Also, school lunch is a convenient and economical option for busy families. A new report issued by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies encourages families and schools, along with industry and communities, to take action and reverse the rapid rise in childhood obesity. Parents are called upon to provide healthful foods at home and encourage physical activity by limiting children's recreational TV, videogame, and computer time to no more than 2 hours a day. Additionally, schools are called upon to implement standards for all foods and beverages served on school grounds, including those from vending machines. It also recommends that schools expand opportunities for children to engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day.

According to RedOrbit.com, making healthy food choices available to school kids is a priority for many lawmakers. You are what you eat, they say - and plenty of school kids are testing that theory every day. To keep kids healthy, legislators are taking a look at how to help them with nutritious choices at school. From 2005 through 2007, state lawmakers enacted about 46 bills related to school nutrition standards. Foods and beverages that pack more nutritional punch and carry less fat, sugar and empty calories are under consideration. California, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon and Rhode Island took different approaches, but all enacted school nutrition legislation last year in 2007, with two dozen states considering similar laws in 2008.

Kids today are heavier than ever before as reported by RedOrbit.com. Over the past three decades, obesity rates have nearly tripled for children aged 2 to 5 (from 5% to 14%), more than quadrupled for children aged 6 to 11 (from 4% to 19%), and more than tripled for youths aged 12 to 19 (from 5% to 17%). Today, 17.1% of kids aged 2 to 19 are obese, and almost 30% don't exercise enough. Being overweight puts children and teenagers at greater risk for developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, asthma, sleep apnea and psychosocial problems such as low self-esteem. Added into the mix are the annual medical costs of obesity estimated at $75 billion. Taxpayers fund about half of this through Medicare and Medicaid.

Schools get cash reimbursements from the federal government for each full meal they sell that meets its requirements according to RedOrbit.com. Children who purchase a la carte items are less likely to buy a reimbursable school meal. And some of these extra "competitive" foods (sodas, water ices, chewing gum, hard candy, jellies and gums, marshmallow candy, fondant, licorice, spun candy and candy-coated popcorn) are, by federal law, not allowed in food service areas during lunch periods. Twenty-six states limit when and where they may be sold beyond the federal requirements, but kids know how to buy them in vending machines or school stores during the school day. And, school districts participating in the federal National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program must meet nutrition guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that limit fat in full school meals and track protein, calcium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C and calories. Many states, however, exceed those guidelines, which don't include specific standards for cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber or sugar content. School nutrition legislation can help provide children with healthy choices, establish good lifelong eating habits and get food to those who are hungry, while bringing federal meal reimbursement money into states. Studies show that children will choose healthier foods when given the option, and well-nourished students do better in school.

School nutrition is vitally important in fostering a healthy and positive learning environment for children to achieve their full potential, according to the National School Boards Association. And, according to SchoolBreakfast.org and the School Nutrition Association, a school breakfast is proven to be good for children's bodies and their minds. Research shows that children who eat breakfast have improved memory, problem-solving skills, verbal fluency and creative abilities. School breakfast includes dairy, protein, whole grains and fruits, in appropriate portion sizes for kids, while meeting federal nutrition guidelines based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day and provides the necessary energy to start a day of learning and achievement. Breakfast helps you be your best and research has shown that children who eat breakfast at school:
--Score better in standardized tests.
--Have fewer health issues.
--Behave better in class.
Research also shows that kids who skip breakfast rarely make up for missed nutrients later in the day — so skipping breakfast could also affect the activities after school that you really love.
Some kids skip breakfast at home because they think it's too early to eat. By the time they get to school, they are really hungry.

However, there is much more room for improvement according to eScienceNews.com in a report by the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Schools need to do even more to reduce the availability of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and make school meals more nutritious. Although the majority of US schools offer breakfasts and lunches that meet the standards for key nutrients (such as protein, vitamins A and C, calcium and iron), reimbursable school meals remain too high in saturated fat and sodium, and children are not consuming enough fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Many public schools are constrained in providing better meals because of limited funds. Although more than 70% of schools serve meals that meet standards for many nutrients that contribute to healthful diets, few schools (less than 10%) meet all nutrition standards, primarily because most meals served contain too much fat, too much saturated fat or too few calories. And, although most schools offer the opportunity to select a balanced meal, few students make the more healthful choice.

Public schools, especially since they are responsible for spending tax dollars, must be very aware of serving the best types of nutritional foods for children and teens. There are many success stories about improving the food in cafeterias, but much more needs to be done. Occasionally, the food can hurt more than help, and the cost to upgrade the quality may significantly impact the budget for school districts in areas dealing with limited finances. Foods high in fat are not nutritious, and better quality can cost more than what the school can afford. In the long run, children must have food in both breakfast and lunch programs that meet the criteria for nutrition, taste, quality, and affordability.

Until next time. Let me know what you think.

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