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What parents should know about the conflicting news on school food

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The very same week we learned about the push to ban trans fats from Colorado school food, both at lunch and in before- and after-school snacks, another study asserted that junk food in school vending machines has no impact on students’ weight or obesity levels.

It’s confusing. Kind like all the conflicting studies about coffee – or red wine. (I know how I choose to interpret them…)

Does healthy school food make a difference? Or doesn’t it?

Should we just keep healthy food on the lunch tray (read all about the Obama administration’s changes to subsidized school meals announced this week) and not worry about vending machines?

These are potentially costly tweaks to our state’s cafeteria and vending machine food to make at a time when there are so many other competing needs in our classrooms.

My daughter, a fourth-grader in a Boulder Valley school, won’t touch the food at school, even though our very own “renegade lunch lady” Ann Cooper has transformed the nutritional quality of lunches in our school district.

Still, a sizable number of children do eat food at school. And despite the image of Colorado as a fitness paradise, 14.2 percent of our children and adolescents are technically obese, meaning they have a much higher risk for a range of diseases that will shorten their lives.

For some of our children, school provides a primary source of nourishment each day.

Why school food matters

The food our children eat – or even simply look at – at school does have an impact.

Face it. School isn’t just about academics – it’s about helping young people make good choices. Recycling is good. Tossing trash in the street is bad. Smoking is really nasty. Not smoking equates to nice, healthy pink lungs. Being respectful to others is good. Being a bully gets you sent to the principal. You get the drift.

With all the research now in hand, it’s hard to argue that Coca Cola or French fries have any place at school. And, in many cases, Colorado schools have already banished these nutritionally negligent foods.

Whether we need a new state law to limit trans fats, including foods made with margarine or vegetable shortening, should be debated. In light of the new, watered down school food guidelines announced this week, Colorado should step up to do more.

You may recall that Congress – bowing to industry pressure – failed to approve the revised school food rules as they were originally drafted. The original revisions would have limited the amount of potatoes consumed in school lunch (Tater Tots, anyone?) and not counted tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable. As it stands, kids in some districts will still be able to mack down on Fries at every meal. Yet a key question remains: Who will be the designated trans fat cop? If food cooked with margarine is discovered, does the school cook get time in French fry jail?

Regardless of what happens on the federal or state level, schools and districts should embrace these changes on their own, working closely with parents and students in their own communities.

Kids are shaped by what they see. Isn’t it better that they see popcorn, granola bars or fruit in a vending machine vs. potato chips and candy?

The evidence is certainly clear. The consumption of trans fats increases the risk of coronary heart disease by raising levels of LDL cholesterol and lowering levels of “good” HDL cholesterol. We don’t want that for our kids.

Why we can ignore the Penn State study

So, I don’t choose to give that much weight to a recent Penn State study, which found that the percentage of children who had access to candy, soda and chips at school jumped dramatically between fifth and eighth grades yet didn’t translate into extra pounds.

Interestingly, the New York Daily News reported that the percentage of students in the survey who were overweight or obese actually declined between fifth and eighth grades.

The surprised researcher concluded that how kids eat outside and at home has a much greater impact than their exposure to high-fat or sugary snacks in school.

This, of course, makes total sense. But are we better off reinforcing unhealthy eating habits at school, or showing young people there are different – and better – ways to eat?

I’ll argue the latter.

Find more news and information on healthy schools in Colorado and beyond here.

EdNews Parent editor Julie Poppen is a former daily newspaper journalist who has covered a multitude of school issues in Fort Collins, Boulder and Denver. She is also the mother of a fourth grader in Boulder Valley and regular, though not always perfectly proficient, classroom volunteer. Read her weekly blog Confessions of a Partially Proficient Parent.

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  • comment avatar Amber's Crazy Bloggin' Canuck January 27, 2012

    I think vending machines are a huge problem (speaking from personal experience). I had healthy parents and so often the only place I’d buy junk was at school. Of course, I loved it at the time but as a parent, my views have changed. I don’t mind the occasional treat but I’d definitely like to see healthier options on the menu. A few times a month, I eat with my kids at school and I’m pleased to see that strides are being made to provide healthier meals but we’re still not there yet.

  • comment avatar Gretchen White January 27, 2012

    There has to be a balance. For many people, including kids, healthy means “tastes like moldy cardboard.” Of course, that isn’t the case but it must be especially hard to make palatable food en masse for thousands of people every day. Quinoa in 50-pound batches will never taste like homemade.

    So it’s no surprise to see what’s happening in places like LA, where new healthy school menus have already been implemented:

    The waste has been incredible with thousands of kids DROPPING OUT of school meal programs. Is it better for them to eat black market candy bars out of lockers or pizza from the cafeteria? I’m not saying cave to their whims, but healthy-eating advocates need to have reasonable expectations.

    Baby steps, not sweeping reform. Balance, acknowledging people LIKE pizza and burgers and chocolate milk. Wisdom, meaning remembering that black markets always spring up when outright bans are enacted. Prohibition, anyone?

    Also, common sense. Replacing pop with fruit juice sounds nice, but fruit juice has just as much sugar. It doesn’t have the other chemicals, but it isn’t really healthy, either.

  • comment avatar JoAnn January 27, 2012

    Call me naive, but doesn’t anyone else find it sad that “school provides a primary source of nourishment each day,” (as quoted from above)? If that’s the case, the problem is much bigger than what schools offer for lunch choices!

    If you teach your children about healthy eating habits, they will make healthy food choices most of the time. They won’t make the best choices all the time, but neither do we. Does it really matter? I mean, if they’re getting a nutritious breakfast and a healthful dinner, what they eat for lunch isn’t going to ruin the day.

    I’m sorry, but as a parent, it’s MY job to make sure they have an overall good-meal day. It’s MY job to see that my child eats nutritious meals…for the most part. Right?

    Now, if parents are allowing their kids to eat junk for the other two meals of the day, that’s another issue. Is it really the school’s responsibility?

    Just playing devil’s advocate here…

  • comment avatar Amber Johnson January 28, 2012

    Great insights, everyone. I regularly eat lunch with my daughter at school and I’ll tell you what: when given the choice between pizza and salad, they will (99% of the time) choose the unhealthier option. I know many of these kids’ parents and they have been taught to eat healthy. But most kids being kids will go for the greasy, yummy version.

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