Tom Smart, Deseret News
One day recently, adults dressed as a carrot, a banana and a poached egg walked into the cafeteria at East Midvale Elementary. Good food choices help you stay healthy, the grown-ups in the costumes told the children sitting at the lunch tables. The children broke into an impromptu chant — "We love bananas!" — and one of them gave the carrot a high-five.
What happened next underscores the challenge of school lunch.
Like many districts in Utah, Canyons School District is trying to teach children about nutrition and is making its lunches more healthful, so the menu that day included fresh blueberries and raw pepper slices. There were indeed good food choices, and there were children making them.
But there were also students who bypassed the fresh fruit and vegetable station and concentrated on the bags of chips that were also on the menu. Some students licked the whipped cream off their blueberries and spit the fruit out. At one table, a little boy unwrapped the sack lunch he brought from home, ate the ham, tossed the apple and proved that oh yes he can stuff an entire Ding Dong in his mouth. Most kids washed their food down with chocolate milk — except for the ones who brought lunch from home; they mostly drank fruit punch or soda pop.
School lunch in Utah — whether served by the school or brought from home — is a complicated affair, full of improvements and promise but also constrained by tight budgets, uninformed parents and picky eaters raised on sugar, fat and salt. School lunch is the moment where what the experts know about fueling young brains and bodies meets reality. Where "fresh food is better than processed" smacks up against "it's too expensive." Where "chocolate milk contains twice as much sugar as regular milk" runs headlong into "but it's what kids want."
Hang around in school lunchrooms in Utah and you'll be both encouraged and dismayed.
This spring, the reputation of school lunch took a beating.
"Too fat to fight," declared more than 100 retired military leaders last month about America's teens, citing high-calorie school lunches as one reason. "More likely to be overweight," reported researchers at the University of Michigan about middle school children who eat school lunch.
Then along came British TV chef Jamie Oliver and his "Food Revolution," which made high drama of efforts to change the school lunch program in a West Virginia town whose obesity and diabetes rates are among the highest in the nation.
School lunch has had a bad rap for decades, but recently America has discovered how pudgy it really is, so efforts have intensified to make changes. And the concern isn't just about weight, says Primary Children's Medical Center dietitian Pauline Williams. Food choices are tied directly to future risk of heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, blindness and certain cancers. And even small, subclinical micronutrient deficiencies can lead to poor classroom performance, says national nutrition expert John Berardi.
Utah is not in the vanguard of school lunch reform (that would be places like California where "Renegade Lunch Lady" Ann Cooper changed the Berkeley Unified School District's menus from processed cheese nachos to healthy meals made from scratch). But Utah isn't bringing up the rear, either.
If school lunch indeed contributes to obesity, evidence suggests Utah is doing something right, or at least less wrong. The National Survey of Children's Health data shows Utah's children are the least overweight in the nation: 23.1 percent, compared to 31.6 nationwide. Still, that's nearly one in four children who weigh more than is healthy.
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