Trouble on A tray

Let's fight childhood obesity at its source and demand healthful school lunches

August 04, 2008|By Patrice Green

For me, it was the last straw. As a physician, I've worried for years about how common obesity and diet-related diseases are becoming among our nation's young people. But I was absolutely floored by the American Academy of Pediatrics' recent recommendation that children as young as 8 should be prescribed cholesterol-lowering medication when lifestyle changes don't seem to help.

Second-graders on Lipitor? That recommendation has raised concerns about the effects these powerful drugs might have on developing young bodies. But surely, above all else, it is a shocking sign that we've come to a very dark place in the fight against childhood obesity.

It's time to change the battle plan - and those changes have to start at the federal level. Even as physicians are hitting the red alert button about childhood obesity, about 30 million young students at schools across the country are sitting down to meals served as part of the National School Lunch Program and National School Breakfast Program - and all too many of these meals are high in fat and cholesterol and short on fruits and vegetables.

On Wednesday, here in Baltimore, we'll have a great chance to change things. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is holding a "listening session" on the Child Nutrition Act, the legislation that regulates the federal school meals programs.

The Child Nutrition Act will come before Congress for renewal next year - but it's already being shaped at these listening sessions. That's why doctors like me will be attending to give the USDA a polite earful.

I'm going to suggest that we ask schools to reduce the average amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in meals - and reward those schools that comply by increasing federal reimbursement rates. Schools can meet that goal by serving more healthy plant-based meals - black bean burritos and veggie burgers instead of hamburgers and tater tots.

The average meal needs more fiber, too - every lunch and every breakfast served should have about 7 grams, which is one-third the recommended daily allowance. To achieve that goal, schools should serve more fruits and vegetables. Far too many children today go days without eating fresh fruits and vegetables; that has to change.

The USDA needs to do its part by changing the kinds of commodity foods it distributes to schools. For decades, the USDA's decision about what foods to distribute to schools has been based less on health concerns and more on what benefits American agribusiness.

As a general rule, the USDA shouldn't distribute any commodity food that derives more than 7 percent of its calories from saturated fat. And the federal government should not be pushing schools to serve processed meats such as hot dogs, which are high in fat and linked to increased risk of diabetes and cancer later in life. Instead, government procurement programs should focus more on helping schools get easy access to whole grains, legumes and other healthy low-fat foods.

There is no magic bullet for ending the obesity epidemic. And parents obviously have a critical role to play. Every mom and dad has to take responsibility for helping their children stay fit and healthy.

But parents need to know that the federal government is on their side in this battle. And that alliance has to begin at school, where school lunches and breakfasts have such a huge impact on children's health and eating habits.

We can acknowledge the painful truth that some young people today might benefit from cholesterol-lowering drugs. But that doesn't mean we have to like it. Healthful school meals could help reverse the disturbing numbers on childhood obesity - but that will only happen if parents, physicians, and community members speak up and take action.

Dr. Patrice Green is a member of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and practices primary care in Baltimore.

Listening session

The U.S. Department of Agriculture public meeting on the Child Nutrition Act will be held Wednesday in the Enoch Pratt Free Library auditorium, 400 Cathedral St., from 8:30 am. to 2 p.m For more information, call (609) 259-5059.

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