COMBINING HEALTHY FOODS WITH NUTRITION EDUCATION
Healthy eating in America poses a dual challenge, said Janey Thornton, Deputy Under Secretary of Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Hunger remains a “real issue,” despite the widespread belief that everyone in America either has enough food to eat or is personally to blame for lacking sufficient food. At the same time, obesity is a serious problem across income levels and demographic groups.
Poor eating and physical inactivity in turn contribute to key educational risks, including behavioral problems, short-term thinking, lack of motivation, disengagement from learning, and absenteeism. Before coming to Washington, Thornton was a home economics teacher and school nutrition director in Kentucky, and “I saw all of these things,” she said.
These educational risks increase the likelihood of poor educational outcomes, including poor grades, low standardized test scores, grade level retention, and dropping out. These outcomes will have a direct impact on the future state of society, she said. “When people are saying, ‘We have to get people off welfare rolls,’ … it comes back to education.”
The Obama administration is committed to improving healthy eating and physical activity, and this commitment has already helped produce positive changes in schools and surrounding communities, Thornton observed. Schools serve about 32 million student lunches daily during the school year, and 12 million children participate in school breakfast programs. Yet, only about 60 percent of the students in schools eligible for the school lunch program participate, and only about 28 percent of students take advantage of breakfast programs. “Kids aren’t taking advantage of the food that’s there.”
Thornton particularly called attention to the problems posed by schools with open campuses, where students can go elsewhere for lunch. “If I’m a poor kid and I’m sitting there and all the cool kids go to the nearest fast food restaurant to eat, do you think I want to be caught dead in the cafeteria? I would rather be hungry than be viewed as a nerd.” This problem cannot be solved overnight, in part because of the limited capacity of many school cafeterias, but if communities recognized the importance of good nutrition, they could augment school cafeterias and gradually require more students to stay on campus for lunch.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-296) calls for local wellness policies that include goals for nutrition education, physical activity, and other school-based activities that promote student wellness, in addition to school-based nutrition guidelines to promote student health and reduce childhood obesity. The act also requires that local wellness policies include goals for nutrition promotion. (Box 2-1 summarizes the act’s well-