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Learning Lifelong Healthy Eating in the School Lunchroom

We all know there's a lot more than reading, writing and arithmetic that children learn in school. Until the national school lunch program was modified in 2010 nutrition hadn't been high on the list and now that is being threatened by efforts in Congress.
10/02/2015 09:50am ET | Updated October 2, 2016
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We all know there's a lot more than reading, writing and arithmetic that children learn in school. Until the national school lunch program was modified in 2010 nutrition hadn't been high on the list and now that is being threatened by efforts in Congress.

In 2010 the "Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act" was designed to remove high levels of sodium, sugar and fat as well as to add more grains, fruits and vegetables. It was a bipartisan success story that easily won Congressional approval. But it's up for reauthorization this year and there's a battle brewing in Washington that is jeopardizing the program and ultimately the health of our nation's children.

I'm not sure what happened on the political front that reversed the position so many legislators now intent on rolling back the standards. I can attest that on the nutrition and healthcare fronts we have seen a positive impact with evidence of a slow reversal of childhood obesity; some of which I believe can be attributed to healthier meals in schools and increased public awareness about nutrition.

According to the USDA, which oversees the school lunch program, during the last five years some 95 percent of schools have adopted the new standards. Sure there were bumps in the road and not every child has been thrilled by the food choices, but it's working so I don't see any merit to turning back the clock.

Each day some 30 million lunches and more than 12 million breakfasts are served in schools, with many children getting half their daily nutrients through these programs. We all know a well-nourished child is more receptive to learning in the classroom and thriving at home. And important to the work I do with nutrition and the aging, we also know a key determinant for a long and healthy life is making nutritious choices early in life and even before a child is born.

According to research at our center, the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts (HNRCA) University, it's best for both parents to eat healthy before having children. Studies at our Center show that maternal exposure to diets containing high fructose and saturated fats, low B vitamins, or their combination may lead to insulin sensitivity. Other studies in our labs have determined that a father's vitamin B6 deficiency may contribute to colorectal cancer in adult offspring.

I find it troubling that many trying to reduce the nutritional value of the meals are basing their position on anecdotal evidence that some children are having difficulty adapting to eating whole grains, certain vegetables and more fruit. Our scientists at HNRCA have proven that over time a person can shift their food preferences and rewire the reward-seeking part of the brain to prefer healthier options. I have confidence that we will see similar patterns among young students - if we maintain the current nutritional standards. I'm also optimistic that students will bring some of their new food preferences developed in the school cafeteria back to their families at home.

Like me, you may have read the headlines that claim the national school lunch program is failing and seen the images of school trash bins filled with uneaten meals. That's to a large extent the media focusing on the sensational. Let's be frank, taste and appeal have been persistent problem in our school cafeterias. Instead of blaming nutritious food choices, let's take on the achievable task of improving flavor - which is happening with many innovative approaches such as farm to school programs.

And in addition to adding flavor, let's give kids enough time to eat. In a just published article in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a team of Harvard researchers found children are not being given enough time to properly eat their lunch. After walking to the lunchroom and waiting in line, students often have only 10 to 20 minutes to eat, according to the study. The data show students who had less than 20 minutes to eat consumed 13 percent less of their main meal, 12 percent fewer vegetables and 10 percent less milk. Students rushed for time were also less likely to select a fruit. I know it's difficult to add time to the school day, but rushing through meals is another habit that leads to unhealthy eating behaviors later in life.

The average weight of an American child has been increasing since the 1980s, with one in three American kids now considered obese or overweight. If we don't significantly reverse these trends, by 2030 more than half the adult population will be overweight and we'll see the rate of diabetes, stroke and heart disease skyrocket.

Part of reversing the epidemic of obesity is to introduce healthy food choices early in life and the school cafeteria is a natural environment. I hope politics can be removed from the school lunch program and the silent majority in the country speaks up. According to a Kellogg Foundation survey, 86 percent of Americans support national nutrition standards and 67 percent believe school meals are excellent or good - compared to just 26 percent in 2010 before the standards were put in place.