Good Food for Our Children: Good Common Sense

Children serving themselves from a healthy alternative salad bar at their school cafeteriaNutritional scientists have been saying for many years that good nutrition aids good cognition.  Teachers translate that to mean that children learn and behave better if they have a good breakfast and lunch.  This is no secret.  It is just good common sense.

Years ago families had to pay for books and children had to walk miles to school in all kinds of weather.  Then gradually, we made a decision as a country that taxpayers should pay for books and buses to take children long distances to school.  We did that so the children could learn and stay healthy.  We invested in the future of our children because it was the right thing to do and because their future is our future.  It is just good common sense.

We are now facing a double health crisis for our children.  Sixteen million children are considered food insecure.  That does not mean they are starving but rather they are eating less, having to skip meals and are eating a less nutritious diet than is necessary for balanced growth.  That leads to the second crisis of childhood obesity and the accompanying health related diseases, especially diabetes.  Obesity in children has rocketed from 6 percent in 1980 to 19 percent now and one third are either over weight or obese.  Diabetes has more than doubled since 1980 and is a major cause of the high cost of healthcare.  The overall cost for diseases related to obesity is $147 BILLION dollars a year.  Fast food, high doses of fat and sugar are poisoning our children, so much so that a recent study said that this generation is the first to be in danger of living shorter lives than their parents.   Something must be done.  Where should we start?

Last year 21 million children received subsidized school lunches, up from 18 million in 2006-7, a 17 percent increase in a few short years due to high unemployment and under employment.  In many states like Florida, Nevada and New Jersey the increase was more than 25 percent.  Another 11 million children pay for their lunches.   11.6 million receive school breakfast and  one  million an afternoon snack.  This is the place to start the turn around in childhood nutrition crises.  We need to invest in free meals for every child that is eligible and we need to expand eligibility to reach the millions of near poor families that are struggling in this Great Recession.  At the same time we must improve the quality of the meals to include more fresh fruits, grains and vegetables and not give in to the food industry that wants pizza to be considered a vegetable because of the presence of tomato sauce.  The third major benefit of this good food in schools is to local farmers who can increase their sales to neighborhood schools.

No one says this will be easy but it is possible and it is necessary.  It calls for a major investment in school meals, creative ways to present good nutrition like breakfast in the classroom, salad bars that have proven successful with children, nutrition education for parents and standing up to the fast food purveyors who have infiltrated our schools.  This is happening successfully in hundreds of schools throughout the country.  Our government, our schools and our communities can learn from these successes.   If we love our children as we always say we do, we need to find a way to make sure they grow up to be healthy adults.  This is no secret.  It is just good common sense.

Visit the Food Security Learning Center to learn more and find out how you can take action!

Bill Ayres