We're giving awards for what?!
This morning as I was going through my daily nutrition Google Alerts, one story caught my eye. It was about a school district that won a national nutrition award by teaching children about different fruits and vegetables with the help of a chef-hat-wearing mascot. I am not going to share the name of the school district because honestly it’s almost irrelevant. The more relevant part of this story is what happened when I finished reading the article.
In an effort to find out the nutrition standards worthy of an award, naturally I looked up the featured district’s lunch menu. Surely, if they won a national nutrition award and everything they shared in the article is true, then the menu must be incredibly healthy right? Wrong.
At this point I should be used to disappointment and it’s fair to say my expectations are generally very low to begin with, but somehow this menu managed to shock even me.
Take a look for yourself:
On the surface this menu looks pretty bad, but still I thought, the nutrition facts might tell a slightly different, more positive story. They did not.
One entree item shown below contains 1,129.547 mg of sodium. For context, that’s roughly half the daily limit recommendation for adults. Shockingly, the CDC warns that 9 out of 10 children in America consume too much sodium and 1 in 6 already have high blood pressure, putting them at risk of developing a number of diet-related diseases.
Another menu item, the Country Fried Steak has 50 mg of cholesterol - a quarter of the upper limits allowed for adults. The American Academy of Pediatrics has published a number of papers outlining the dangers of children over-consuming foods high in cholesterol, and many lifestyle medicine practitioners note there is no safe amount of dietary cholesterol recommended for daily consumption. Both groups point to the fact atherosclerosis begins in childhood and unhealthy dietary patterns are almost singularly responsible for our country’s leading killer: heart disease.
Yet and still, here we are: giving school districts nutrition awards for menus dominated by known disease-causing foods. Jumbo corn dogs, gravy every-other-day, breaded and fried pork and chicken, red meat most days, and let’s not forget the slushy that counts as a fruit more than once on this menu.
By no means am I trying to shame this one specific school district. I understand how hard their jobs are and I do not envy their profession.
I am trying to point out a much bigger systemic issue in which we hand out awards for getting children to eat rutabaga one time while feeding them calorie-dense, nutrient-poor, disease-causing meals five days a week.
I’m pointing out that ~maybe~ we've lost sight of reasonable nutrition guidelines, and ~perhaps~ we're not really questioning whether the foods served to our children actually promote health or just kind of taste good.
There is no easy way out of this mess. The scale of the problem is incomprehensibly large, which is why it will require dedicated people in communities all over the country to organize and advocate for change. No one top-down solution will work for every school district or institutions, but I have abundant hope in community-led advocacy.
Community-led initiatives in which the people directly affected are empowered to speak up and take action are incredibly powerful, especially when it comes to the health of our families. Each of us is best positioned to make change in the places closest to home -- the places that matter most to our families. I know how much we love our children and how far we're willing to go to keep them safe and healthy, so if we're being honest, standing up for healthier menus isn't even that far.
Obviously, there will be no awards for this kind of work. The proof is in the (healthy-ish) pudding and it doesn’t look like awards hanging in a foodservice office, it looks like more balanced menus hanging on the lunchroom wall. It looks like healthy children, families, and communities.
Audrey Lawson-Sanchez is the founder and Executive Director of Balanced. She spent the better part of a decade working in public education before becoming a mother and realizing her true calling: fighting for the health of every child and every family.
You can contact her by email: email@example.com
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