Last week a homemade lunch ban by a Chicago school made headlines, part of their healthy food policy. While school healthy food and wellness policies can be good tools, the Chicago school’s policy may have unintended consequences such as some students choosing not to eat.
In today’s diverse schools, many parents send students culturally unique lunches that school cafeterias may not offer. Faced with unfamiliar or unappealing food, some students may choose to eat nothing at all. Hungry students are not good learners.
Furthermore, there are more effective ways of addressing the unhealthy eating habits that harm so many of America’s children. Eating is a lifestyle, and the best way to create a lifestyle is to start young.
The coaching model is one approach, in which students are given good eating advice and then they set small healthy eating goals. The Energy Balance for Kids program (EB4K) is an example of an approach where students are regularly coached to reach small goals by a Registered Dietitian or Nutrition expert. It’s a model that embraces empowerment.
Instead of simply being given the knowledge, Registered Dietitian Coaches walk alongside students, meeting them in their own particular situation and helping provide the tools for change. For instance, coaches can work with kids from a busy, single parent home, teaching them how to prepare healthy after school snacks when Mom might still be at work. This approach empowers the student to choose nutrient rich foods that keep them well nourished.
In addition to individual coaching the EB4K program helps schools implement wellness policies that reinforce healthy eating. An example of these policies is not using food as an incentive, or a reward for good grades or behavior. Many schools have also stopped selling soda and candy in vending machines. Food manufacturers are doing a better job at selling healthy snacks, which can replace the unhealthy choices usually found in vending machines.
The Chicago school is right in acknowledging that school cafeterias are big part of the solution. The school meal patterns are changing to incorporate nutrient rich choices and the face of school lunch is changing. The school should have involved parents is the process and created a set of healthy criteria for homemade lunches, just like their criteria for food vendors. This would have been a great opportunity to educate parents on healthy eating choices for their children and it would have accomplished the goal without alienating the parents. The important thing is for students to eat and our approaches must be those that empower parents and students to make healthy eating choices.
Another cafeteria strategy is the food’s appeal. Cafeteria staff can be trained to better present fruits and veggies – orange slices instead of whole oranges, green broccoli instead of overcooked brown broccoli. I’ve seen cafeterias ordering more fruits and veggies after making changes to their food presentation and preparation methods, when before they were throwing away trays and trays of healthy food that kids would not eat simply because of presentation.
Using these methods, it’s not difficult for entire schools to embrace a culture of healthy food and nutrient rich eating. It’s a no brainer if we want to get serious about tackling childhood obesity and the other ailments caused by America’s unhealthy eating lifestyles. Our approaches must involve everyone, parents, students, school teachers, foodservice staff, and school building administrators. Healthy eating and active living must be a part of the lifestyle and environment that our children grow up in and not just a set of rules.