I admit it -- I buckled under the pressure. Before my kids had even made it out of Pre-K, they ate their first hot school lunch. In their minds, that first bite sent them into the ranks of the "big kids." In my mind, that first check of the CHICKEN NUGGETS box may have sent them on the road to becoming "big kids," in a literal sense, like the estimated 25% of American kids who are considered obese.
By obese I don't mean a one-time jaunt to the Husky Department during that awkward period when you can't lose the baby fat; I mean obese as in a decades-long public health issue -- the first generation of kids who will grow up unhealthier than their parents despite our medical advances, suffering from type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and inflammatory issues in unprecedented numbers.
And yet, not wanting my kids to be total social pariahs, I compromised, allowing them to have one school lunch a week. Would it be Artery-Clogging Monday or Heart-Attack Tuesday? Mini Corn Dogs. Tater Tots. Salisbury Steak. Meat Loaf.
Reaching for my checkbook, it occurred to me that, as a tax payer under universal health care, I would potentially be writing many checks in my lifetime to help pay for health problems largely associated with years of eating poorly. While the candidates are spending a lot of time talking about "major health care reform," they are neglecting to talk about one thing that will make a huge impact at the most basic level: a major reform of our diets, especially among America's poorest children.
Twinkies Are Inflation-Proof
A study released in January tried to make sense of why children from lower income families are more likely to be overweight than children from higher income families. Culling data from more than 2,000 three-year-olds in twenty U.S. inner cities, researchers found that 32 percent of white and black children were either overweight or obese, versus 44 percent of Hispanics.
While researchers couldn't draw any definitive conclusions, the answer starts with simple math. Healthy food costs more.
(This is why shoppers try to laugh at the motto: "Whole Foods = Whole Paycheck." If they didn't laugh, they'd cry.)
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that a low-income family would have to devote 43 to 70 percent of its total food budget to fruits and vegetables just to meet the 2005 Dietary Guidelines (five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day).
What's worse, another study suggests that the price of fruits and vegetables is climbing faster than inflation, while junk food is actually becoming cheaper. Researchers at the University of Washington found that low-calorie, nutrient-rich foods -- mainly fruits and vegetables -- were far more expensive, calorie for calorie, than sweets and snack foods. Additionally, the price of the lowest-calorie foods -- including green vegetables, tomatoes, and berries - increased by almost 20 percent over two years. In contrast, in the same time period there was a 2 percent dip in the cost of the most calorie-laden fare, such as butter, potato chips, cookies and candy bars.
Naturally, if you need to feed a family of six on a budget, the low-nutrient macaroni and cheese is going to go farther.
The Presidential Candidates and School Lunch
One way for voters to help level the playing field - and to make healthy foods more affordable - is to find out if candidates support measures like the Farm Bill, and some of its key provisions, like The Community Food Project, a community-based program that connects residents in low-income communities with healthy, affordable food.
Since most kids eat one, if not two, meals at school, the government needs to find ways to overhaul the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which has aimed to to provide nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children since 1946. The problem is that it falls woefully short: Most lunch programs across the country are way too high in saturated fat and cholesterol and way too low in nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. (To see how major school districts stacked up in the school lunch department, check out the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine's School Lunch Report).
Companies like Brown Bag Naturals (www.brownbagnaturals.com) and Kid Fresh (www.kidfresh.com) cater to health-conscious parents by delivering healthy, organic, ready-made meals to more than 400 private schools. With prices that range from $4.99 to $7.99 a meal, kids can choose from a sandwich made with free-range chicken, with organic yogurt and a spring water, to broccoli trees with tomato dip and a fresh fruit salad. While the prices are a bit higher than the standard fare, couldn't the government offer tax breaks or other types of incentives to companies so menus like these could replace the nutrient-poor options we're feeding our kids? Surely buying meals in bulk without the flashy packaging would bring the cost down to an affordable price.
While more expensive initially, the benefits of feeding our kids well now will take a tremendous burden off of a health care system that is already stressed. With a generation of kids facing some serious health problems before they hit puberty, an ounce of prevention is not only worth a pound of cure, but billions of dollars for tax payers.
Published On: January 29, 2008