Healthy School Lunches in Wake County Schools
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According to the CDC website childhood obesity has doubled in children in the last 30 years and in 2012 nearly 1/3 of children and adolescents were considered obese or overweight. Being obese or overweight is determined to some extent by genetic factors but also by behavior and environmental factors including caloric imbalance. Further, obese children are at risk for cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, prediabetes, and social and psychological problems. As adults, obese children are more likely to grow to be obese adults and continue to be at risk for diabetes, stroke, certain types of cancer, osteoarthritis, and heart disease.
Accordingly, the new dietary guidelines by the USDA recommend:
1. Healthy eating patterns including diets high in vegetables (green, red, orange veggies), beans and peas, starches, whole fruits, whole grains, lowfat or fat-free dairy OR soy beverages, and proteins (lean meats, eggs, legumes, nuts, and soy).
2. Limit saturated fat and trans fats (which mostly come from dairy and meat), added sugars (eg: candy, ice cream, desserts), and sodium (eg: canned and processed foods).
3. Focus on nutrient density.
4. "Support health eating patterns for all".
From my experience and with speaking to many parents, there are very limited options for lunch that would actually fit into these guidelines. There is, however, plenty of processed and canned foods, oils and butters, frozen and processed meats, pizza, french fries, candy, ice-cream, cookies, chips, and juice. There is no doubt that does this does NOT constitute healthy choices for our children in Wake County. For those who have dietary limitations, without a doctors note, there are limited options for soy-based foods, vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based foods. Typically, the vegetarian options consist of a pre-packaged/processed peanut butter sandwich, cheese sticks and crackers, macaroni and cheese, and grilled cheese.
The evidence is quite clear that adopting a mostly or all whole-foods, plant-based diet affords tremendous health benefits for the individual and has the potential to improve health on a population level which has both societal benefits and financial benefits. For instance, Kaiser Permanente one of the largest manage care companies and hospital systems has published research and a guide on plant-based diets to encourage its employees, insurance beneficiaries, and patients to adopt this eating pattern.
Finally, not all of the children in Wake County schools are in a position to bring a more healthy lunch to school. According to the 2014-2015 data on reduced and free lunch participation in Wake County, 36.7%, 33.5%, 28.6%, and 33.7% of elementary, middle, high-school students, and overall (respectively) use the Free and Reduced-priced lunch program.
A THIRD of children DEPEND on our schools to provide them with a nutritious and healthy meal to get them through the day so that they can learn and function at school.
Together, we can send a message to Wake County and our individual schools that it is time to make major changes to the lunch programs and start thinking about the health of our kids and not just the bottom line.
Shannon Aymes, MD (mother and physician in Wake County, NC)
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