Barbara Bentz, Published June 10 2013
Letter: Better school mealsAs we approach the beginning of summer, it is important to realize that students in the Fargo area aren’t just consuming knowledge in the classroom during the school year – they’re also consuming calories from school meals and snacks. In fact, many students consume up to half of their daily calories at school. As summer sets in and meals become less structured, it is important to instill healthy eating habits that the students can carry with them long after the final bell rings.
Luckily, there are guidelines to help make sure meals and snacks sold in schools are nutritious for children. Last fall, schools implemented the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s updated nutrition standards for school lunches. The USDA is currently revising 30-year-old nutrition guidelines for snacks and drinks sold in vending machines, snack bars, school stores and a la carte lines.
These two guidelines will work hand in hand to improve students’ health, because the high-fat, high-calorie, high-sugar snacks available in vending machines can undo all the progress being made at the lunch counter. A healthy lunch of grilled chicken and vegetables doesn’t do much good when it’s washed down with a slice of pizza and a sugary soda from the snack bar.
This is not a one-size-fits-all approach. The meal and snack standards were wisely designed to let local school districts adapt them to fit the particular needs of our students, as long as the choices meet the nutritional criteria. The proposed snack standards wouldn’t take away the ability of parents to send in bagged lunches of their choosing or treats for birthday parties or other celebrations, or prevent schools from holding occasional fundraisers and bake sales.
Together, what the national snack and meal standards will do is set a floor so that all North Dakota children have a similar chance to make healthy choices, which is important because childhood obesity is a real threat to children in our state. In Cass and Clay counties, 29 percent of children are overweight or obese. Across the state, 31 percent of toddlers and 25 percent of teenagers are overweight or obese. As a pediatrician, I understand how damaging these statistics are to children. I see firsthand the multiple health problems related to obesity in my young patients: an increase in diabetes, hypertension, joint pain, sports injuries, inability to participate in physical activities and lowered self-esteem.
These efforts will help keep North Dakota’s children healthier, but perhaps one of the most impressive and effective examples of Fargo’s commitment to providing healthy school environments comes from Beth Slette, the former principal at West Fargo’s West Side Elementary. Slette led an effort to remove 10,000 doughnuts and cupcakes from the school per year as part of a “Healthy Snack Initiative,” and converted birthday parties into monthly celebrations involving physical activities that the children love. Parents, the PTA and the staff all supported the change, and West Side’s students are healthier for it.
We could all learn something from Slette’s commitment to improving her students’ health. Let’s join her in taking bold steps to keep children healthy by supporting strong school snack guidelines. Together we can offer North Dakota’s children a culture where making the healthy choice is the easy choice.
Dr. Bentz, MD, is a Fargo pediatrician and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.