- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 11, 2009

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” the old saying goes.

The problem — of course — is Americans in general are just not that into fresh fruit and vegetables. Kids are no different.

It doesn’t help that school lunches often lack in fresh produce offerings, critics of the USDA nutrition standards for school lunches say.

“Part of the problem with the USDA regulations is that they are nutrient based [as opposed to food based],” says Marion Nestle, a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

In other words, the USDA regulations stipulate that a middle-schooler should get, for example, about 400 milligrams of calcium in his or her lunch over the course of a week. It doesn’t say how those 400 milligrams should be delivered.

With school budget cuts and the average daily lunch priced at around $1.80 per child, schools are more likely to deliver the calcium in the form of fortified dairy, such as in high-sugar chocolate milk, instead of high-calcium — and pricier — greens such as spinach or collards.

“You can fortify white flour and call it nutritious,” says Dr. Alan Greene, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine and the author of “Feeding Baby Green.”

“But it takes complex nutrients from vegetables and whole grains to help prevent diseases,” he says, diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

When he started as a pediatrician in the early 1990s, Dr. Greene says it was rare to see a child with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or a 40-inch waist.

“Now, two-thirds of high-school students have one of these conditions,” he says, adding that poor nutrition plays a key role in all of these diseases.

(According to the CDC about 17 percent of children ages 6 through 11 are obese.)

And this is where schools come in.

“Schools are where children learn,” he says. “If they are offered poor lunch choices for 12 years, they will learn that those choices are OK.”

But we know that school-lunch faves pizza, chicken tenders and cookies are not part of the ABCs of good nutrition.

What to do?

First off, more money must be spent on school lunches, says Ann Cooper, a professional chef who is also known as the “Renegade Lunch Lady,” for her nationwide efforts to transform school lunches.

Most recently Ms. Cooper partnered with Whole Foods to create www.thelunchbox.org, a Web site that features practical tips on how to improve the state of school lunches.

“We will either pay now or later,” Ms. Cooper says. “I say we pay another $1 a day now to prevent diseases rather than pay to treat them later on.”

She also recommends creating a culinary corps of unemployed, newly graduated chefs to teach school-lunch personnel about everything from nutrition to food preparation.

She also wants parents to get involved and make their voices heard: Start off by actually trying the school lunch — “Ninety-five percent of it you would never feed your kids at home,” Ms. Cooper says — then voice your concerns at a school board meeting and write Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about desired changes.

Dr. Greene says he would like to see children involved in food production and preparation — from growing vegetables in a school garden to preparing lunch in the cafeteria.

“Children are much more likely to eat food they have helped prepare,” Dr. Greene says.

Ms. Nestle, who is also the author of “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health,” says the USDA regulations should mandate minimum and maximum nutrition requirements per day rather than per week to avoid a school serving high-fat lunches on certain days and lean, healthier ones on others.

Sound daunting and expensive?

“We have a moral imperative to fix it,” Ms. Cooper says. “We spent $4 billion on Cash for Clunkers. Is that worth more than our kids’ health?”

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