Friday, March 20, 2009

School Nutrition Programs: Tied to Obesity?

The USDA (US Dept of Agriculture) has stated that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that the public nutrition programs (e.g. food stamps, public school lunches) they oversee are a cause of the obesity epidemic. I commend the USDA for working to improve the nutritional components of its public food programs (which, I believe is in response to evidence that the vast majority of its current food offerings are not very healthy and may in fact lead to excessive weight gain). For instance, the USDA is offering schools more choices such as whole grains, fresh fruits, and lean meats. However, these items are still significantly more expensive than the white, nutrition-less alternatives (white pasta, white bread, muffins, bagels, etc). Additionally, schools can only order a limited quanitiy of the whole-grain items. So when they run out -- they are out for the rest of the month.

There are currently programs in Masschussetts that are working with schools to help them understand the food menu options and train their staff to prepare new items well. For example, anyone who has cooked brown rice knows that it takes a little while longer than white -- and fresh vegetables cook differently than frozen.

Anecdotally, reports are promising that making public lunches nutritious by cutting back the high-sugar, high-salt, high-fat alternatives actually are well received by students. Studies that examine how much of the new nutritious meals are eaten compared to thrown in the trash only to be replaced with sugary soft drinks and soft-baked cookies are currently underway (yes...soft baked cookies were my snack of choice back in high school).

I'm excited to hear how things develop and hope the USDA continues to consider the evidence for providing nutrient-rich foods to low-income children and their families.

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