Hungry School Kids

On the New York Times front page today: No Appetite for Good-For-You School Lunches. A photo shows a trash can filled with disposable school lunch trays laden with apparently untouched broccoli and fruit. High school teens in Kansas created YouTube video We Are Hungry, that's gone viral. Students are protesting healthier food changes in their school cafeterias across the country. It appears the USDA's new federal school lunch rules don't make the grade with the kids.

In response to the obesity epidemic in U.S. children, the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act of 2010 requires public schools to adhere to lunches that provide more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, limit salty and fatty foods, and provide only low or non-fat milk. Each meal must fit within calorie ranges that are deemed appropriate for their age groups.

Sadly, the backlash from the kids was predictable. For too many kids, white breads and fatty, salty processed foods are the norm, while fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods are no where in sight. Why? Perhaps because fresh produce tends to be more expensive than Oreos, parents don't have time or know-how to cook healthier meals, or its just the way they were raised. Too many kids are growing up eating daily meals of Cheetos, nuggets that supposedly contain chicken, and frozen pizza for dinner. That's what they know and like.

Any time you make radical changes in meals, kids of any age are likely to protest. It takes time to adjust. Psychologists tell us to be patient as we watch the veggies trashed each day; kids need to be "exposed" to new foods 10-12 times before they'll even try them. Change is hard.

I applaud these nutritional changes being made at school. I am a tremendous fan of whole grains, fruits, veggies, lean protein and low fat milk. But, I'm concerned with the mandated upper limit of calories in school lunches. While 17% of our nations kids are obese and many more are overweight, others who are not. Granted, it's a small minority, but some kids are actually underweight. My cousin called me at the start of the school year, very upset. While all three of her young kids have been encouraged by their doctor to try eat more to put on weight, her youngest struggles with an illness that diminishes his weight which remains dangerously low. His dietitian wants him to focus on whole milk to supplement calories. Unfortunately, he keeps hearing in the classroom that full fat milk is one of the "bad" foods and it's no longer offered in the cafeteria. Schools and teachers need to take care not to label any food as "bad" when they teach nutrition. Just as different kids learn in different ways and may need different approaches, many individual people have different food needs.That can't be forgotten in our drive to make kids healthier. 

Some healthy weight pre-teen and teens who train for physically demanding sports (swimming, running, etc) may need more energy at lunch. Many will grab snacks after school and before practice. But some kids who qualify for free or reduced cost school lunches may not have the means for additional healthy food brought from home or purchased for an extra cost at school. These kids may need more food offered at lunch.

Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, LCSW, BCD, a highly respected parent and children feeding and family therapist, developed an approach to feeding children that really helps kids achieve and maintain a healthy weight by allowing them to learn to recognize and respond to their own internal hunger cues. In her book, Your Child's Weight, Helping Without Harming, she explains that, "Parents are responsible for the what, when and where of feeding. Children are responsible for the how much and whether of eating." Now, consider these new school lunches. School provides the what, when, where, and the how much. An increase of fruits, veggies and whole grains is terrific, but an upper limit of calories may not deliver the results that we want: healthy kids at healthy weights. Reduced portions of main dishes and grains may not offer enough energy to all of these extremely active kids, even if they do eat all their fruits and vegetables and clean their plates. 

Plenty of fruits, veggies, lean protein, whole grains and healthy fats are the basics for healthy eating at any age. That's where the Healthy-Hungry Free Act is absolutely right. As time goes on, more and more school kids should start accepting the healthier fare. And don't worry about all the food trashed at school, that was going on long before healthy foods were introduced. If kids throw away leftover food after they've eaten as much as their body needs, that's a good thing. Kids should not be forced or coerced to eat any food or demeaned when they ditch it. We'd all be better off learning to listen to our internal hunger cues, mindfully eat when hungry, and then stop when satisfied or full. It's one big key to maintaining a healthy weight at any age.