First Lady Michelle Obama has been at the forefront of a new initiative by the United States Department of Agriculture to lower rates of childhood obesity. The new standards more than double the required amount of fruits and vegetables, mandate steady reductions in sodium, restrict all milk with higher fat content than 1 percent and place a cap on the number of calories a student should consume in a day. The initiative marks the first major change since 1955 when fat content was reduced.
Because approximately 17 percent of American children are considered obese, according to the Office of the Surgeon General, the USDA's new standards for healthier school lunches are appropriate but they aren't a solution and shouldn't be treated like one.
The battle against unhealthy lifestyles takes a lot more than one balanced meal each day for 180 days of the year for 13 years. The fact that minor improvements in school lunches have become national news worries me that some people think it will solve the entire problem.
The problem with obese, unhealthy children is that they tend to grow up to be obese, unhealthy adults. An adult needs to be able to choose wisely and embrace an active lifestyle to be healthy, and it's these skills that children need to be developing.
While kids are in school, adults are able to make healthy choices for them. When these kids become adults, how will they know what to choose for themselves? If we simply keep unhealthy foods out of children's reach, that progess may be easily be undone once they have access to those foods. Parents shouldn't let kids eat whatever they want, but sheltering them from the bad things will only leave them less prepared to deal with them.
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says, "Requiring school lunches to provide more whole grains, fruits and vegetables will teach kids healthy eating habits that may last a lifetime."
Apparently in Ms. Wootan's mind, the old saying goes "Give a man a fish, and you've just taught a man to fish." Which, I assure you, it does not. The actual saying is "Give a man a fish, and you've fed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you've fed him for a lifetime." Parents need to be teaching children about food choices just as much as we need to provide them a healthy meal during school.
Schools also need to promote physical activity much more than they currently do. Gym class, the laughingstock of public education, may actually be as important to our quality of life as the academic skills taught in other classes. Having gym class every other day - like I did - or even less isn't enough to keep kids in shape.
In school, we need to better emphasize the importance of physical activity to a well-rounded education by giving kids more opportunities to be active.
Kids need healthy, active role models in their lives on a daily basis and personally attentive adults who can guide them as they experiment with finding balance. An extra cup of fruit won't make an obese child healthy if his home life revolves around watching television or doing homework.
Drinking 1 percent milk instead of whole milk won't add years to a child's life if both of her parents work and have no time to prepare healthy dinners at home. Having a celebrity tell kids to be active won't build healthy routines if the adults they see on a daily basis aren't also active.
Childhood obesity is a product of structural, societal conditions - not how much salt is on our freedom fries or syrup on our freedom toast. If Americans aren't serious about discussing all of the causes of childhood obesity, they shouldn't expect effective and long-lasting solutions.