Food Revolution: Think Outside the (Lunch) Box

If we can have nut-free schools, we can have junk-free schools. Our nation's schools should be places committed to nurturing bodies and minds, and not teaching lessons destructive to building strong and healthy children.
05/14/2015 05:42pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016
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May 15, 2015 is Food Revolution Day, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's global day of action to put food education on the school curriculum. Celebrity chefs are not the only ones concerned about food education in schools.

As reflected by a recent statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, physicians like me are also concerned, particularly about the lessons taught by food items brought into school and available through schools beyond the lunchroom.

For instance, consider class parties -- e.g., for student birthdays, holidays, and other celebrations. Such parties might occur several times per month and be virtual buffets of refined sweets, ultra-processed snacks, and sugary beverages.

Given that a single celebratory juice box and cupcake could provide more sugar than the World Health Organization recommends a typical 8-year-old consume over an entire day (or even, ideally, over two days), the potential frequency of in-class juice-and-cupcake celebrations raises concern. And that's before any candy or chips enter the picture.

Then consider bake sales and other food-related fundraisers, after-school programs and sporting events, and any vending options. Also consider times when teachers decide to "reward" students by bringing in sweets, or use candy as an incentive for class participation or as a prize for correct responses.

What schools provide students is often not so much "food" as amalgams of refined and artificial ingredients (e.g., sugars, colors, flavors, fillers, stabilizers, and other components bearing very little resemblance to actual sustenance).

So, yes, physician like me are concerned, and with good reason. Our children are what they eat -- literally! What goes into their mouths becomes the substance of their flesh. And the foods we provide them today become their food preferences for tomorrow. Making junk available to kids -- and endorsing it, often celebrating it, through school activities and events -- does not support wellness, now or in the future.

The analogy I make is to building. Let's say you were constructing a home. Would you allow shoddy materials to support the structure, especially near the foundation? Yet that's exactly what we do when we allow unhealthy food at school as we build our children.

Any absence of obesity should not be reassuring. Tall thin buildings are no less prone to crumble when weak at their bases. When we feed our kids junk, we are building a foundation of unhealthy habits, tastes, and behaviors.

And the costs are real. From attention deficits and distractibility, to dental caries and digestive issues, to metabolic dysfunction and the appearance of diseases once thought only to be adult-onset (e.g., diabetes, hypertension, vascular disease), unhealthy food is not cheap.

Conversely, healthy food is not necessarily expensive (in dollars, or prep time, or in the protests of finicky kids). Healthy food can be flavorful, festive, fun, and feasible. School gardens, cooking classes, field trips to farmers' markets, and sourcing fresh foods from local growers are some ideas for increasing exposure.

But we also need to limit exposure to unhealthy foods and not be dismissive about school-provided candy, cupcakes, chips, and juice drinks. Concentrated sugars, refined starches, and artificial ingredients are biologically active substance with real potential for harm, not just for long-term health but also for short-term physical and mental performance.

Let's have parents and physicians work with teachers and administrators to do the right thing for kids. Food Revolution Day is a good start to bring attention to the issue. Another good start is U.S. Department of Agriculture's plan to improve the foods offered in childcare and after school through federal programs.

If we can have nut-free schools, we can have junk-free schools. Our nation's schools should be places committed to nurturing bodies and minds, and not teaching lessons destructive to building strong and healthy children.

* I have no real of perceived conflicts of interest