Deadly Diet: School Lunches Flunk Out

A national wellness campaign is working to take junk food out of schools, and put nutrition back in.

From the WebMD Archives

The number of obese and overweight children in the United States continues to soar, and yet, over the past two decades, junk food and drinks have staked out a beachhead in America's schools.

Now a new wellness campaign has parents on the front lines of the battle, ready to turn back the clock -- and take back their children's health.

Passing Math but Flunking Lunch

Carey Dabney is one of those parents on the front lines. When Dabney moved to Austin, Texas in 1999, she attended a back-to-school night for her two daughters, then both in middle school. She was delighted to hear the health teacher talk about everything she was teaching regarding nutrition and fitness -- until the very end of the presentation.

"She said, 'But nothing I do here matters, because you should see what they eat at lunch,'" recalls Dabney.

A quick tour of the school told Dabney what the teacher meant. There were six to eight vending machines right outside the cafeteria, selling sweetened soft drinks. candy bars, and potato chips.

Even before they could pass the vending machines, students would run a gauntlet of booster club tables hawking candy, chips, and cakes.

If they made it past the one-two punch of vending machines and candy boosters, students entered the cafeteria to find the "a la carte" line selling pints of ice cream, tubs of chips with cheese sauce, and giant slices of pizza. "The a la carte line snaked out the door, while the little cafeteria line with the regular food never had many people in it," Dabney says.

If you're a parent with a child in middle school or high school, Dabney's experience probably sounds very familiar.

Deadly Diet: Kids' Health at Risk

That's why the stakes are so high, says Rallie McAllister, MD, MPH, an expert on childhood obesity and the author of Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim.

By 2010 approximately half of all children are expected to be obese, according to the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity, says McAllister. "Many experts predict that this generation of children will be the first to have a shorter lifespan than their parents."

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In May, the campaign to "de-junk" school menus got a boost from the former "snacker-in-chief," Bill Clinton, whose love for fries and greasy food contributed to his own cardiac bypass surgery in 2004.

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation -- a joint initiative of the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association -- worked with representatives of leading beverage manufacturers to stop nearly all sales of sugary soft drinks in the nation's public schools. Under new guidelines, only lower-calorie and nutritious beverages will be sold to schools.

"It's a great place to start," says McAllister. "I'm very encouraged. But there's so much more we have to do, such as dramatically improving the quality of the food schools offer at lunchtime."

So Long, Snickers; Farewell, Fries

The responsibility for making sure that happens often falls squarely on the shoulders of parents, says Dabney, who spent the next several years lobbying -- often against resistance from principals, superintendents, and school boards -- for change in the way Austin's public schools fed their children.

Dabney ultimately became the parent advisory committee chair for Austin's School Health Advisory Council (SHAC), which worked with schools to restock vending machines with healthier foods and beverages, and to implement a wellness policy banning booster club food sales. No longer competing with vending-machine junk food, the school's food service program was able to cut back drastically on the greasy pizzas and fries that once dominated the a la carte line.

These changes haven't been easy, says Dabney.

"Parents have to be proactive here," she says. "The schools have been doing this for so long, and they really have their plates full -- no pun intended. But if we can change how they think about children's nutrition, health, and academics, we'll change the kinds of decisions they make. That's what we've seen in Austin."

Starting in July, parents seeking to replace Tater Tots with tomatoes at school have a new weapon: the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act. This law requires that all schools participating in the federal School Lunch Program -- essentially, all public schools -- develop a wellness policy focused on the provision of healthy foods.

"It's a brand new day," says Julia Lear, director of the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools at George Washington University. "It opens a big door to every parent who's been concerned about too many french fries."

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4 Steps Parents Can Take

Lear advises concerned parents to call their superintendent or members of their school board and ask what their district's wellness policy entails. Some key questions to ask:

  • Who makes decisions about what's for lunch?
  • Who makes decisions about school policy on vending machines, and snacks and sodas in the cafeteria or student store?
  • Who makes decisions about what foods can be sold as part of student activity fund-raisers -- and how can parents participate in the policy-making process?
  • Does the school or school district post its lunch menus for the week and do the menus provide information about nutrition facts?

5 Ways to Get Help

Activist parents like Dabney have already paved the way. If you want to get involved in your child's health at school, there are countless ways to do it and resources to use. A few ideas:

"This is an excellent time to bring this message home," says McAllister. "Don't leave your child's nutrition to somebody else."

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on August 27, 2008

Sources

SOURCES: Carey Dabney, parent advisory committee chair, Austin Independent School District School Health Advisory Council (SHAC), Austin, Texas. Rallie McAllister, MD, MPH, board-certified family physician; author, Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim. Julia Lear, director, Center for Health and Health Care in Schools, George Washington University, Washington, D.C. Healthy Youth! Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Washington, D.C. Action for Healthy Kids, Skokie, Ill.

© 2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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