Something is wrong with our school lunch programs and student eating habits when the number of states with 40 percent or more of their young adults who are overweight or obese goes from 1 to 39 in just 10 years. Michelle Obama understands that. Yesterday, the First Lady hosted a star-studded celebrity chef event at the White House as part of her “Let’s Move!” campaign dedicated to solving the problem of childhood obesity in a generation. Approximately 500 Chefs gathered on the White House lawn this afternoon and pledged to “adopt a school in his or her community and work with parents, teachers and cafeteria workers to educate children about food and nutrition. That might include developing healthful recipes for cafeterias, offering cooking lessons or helping a school to plant a garden.” So far, nearly 1,000 chefs have signed on to the program, the White House said.
From Obama’s remarks:
But each of you has so much to offer when it comes to helping our children make healthy choices. You know more about food than almost anyone — other than the grandmas –and you’ve got the visibility and the enthusiasm to match that knowledge. That’s really what’s key….You can make a salad bar fun — now, that’s something — and delicious. You can teach kids to cook something that tastes good and is good for them; and share your passion for food in a way that’s truly contagious. [...]
And as you know, kids are so hungry. They will take it all in. They can change their habits, their taste buds, their approaches overnight. All they need is your encouragement, your enthusiasm, your passion, and your patience. And if we do this together — and I know you guys are ready because you wouldn’t be sitting out here in those hats in the hot sun if you weren’t — (laughter) — we can change the future for our children and for this nation.
Changing behavior seems key. According to the obesity report the First Lady released last month, in the 2004-2005 school year, students had opportunities to eat healthier meals in 90% of all schools nationwide, but “in only about 20% of all schools did the average lunch actually selected by students meet the standards for fat.” Ninety-three to ninety-four percent of the meals also failed to meet all nutritional standards, primarily due to not meeting standards for fat, saturated fat, or calories.”
Improving these statistics and lowering obesity rates will require better nutritional standards (the meal standards, which haven’t been changed for 15 years), more federal funding (to purchase things like better equipment) for school meals and tighter regulation of “in addition to and in competition with the meal program.” These foods, often found in vending machines and the like, are actually exempt from any kind of nutrition requirements and can easily contribute to obesity.
At yesterday’s event, the First Lady asked top chefs to help prepare healthier foods in school kitchens and local communities and also lobbied Congress to pass a strong school nutrition bill. Obama’s fiscal year 2011 budget proposes spending an additional $10 billion over 10 years to strengthen the Child Nutrition and Women, Infants, and Children reauthorization bill, yet the Senate Agriculture Committee has passed a version that includes a $4.5 billion funding increase which, while significantly larger than the last funding increase of $500 million, is still not enough. As Joel Berg explains, the bill earmarks $3.2 billion to improve the quality of meals in child nutrition programs and “takes the long-overdue step of allowing USDA to regulate junk foods and other so-called “competitive foods” sold in schools in competition with the federal school meals programs”, but falls short of funding targets.
Obama said that child nutrition is not a peripheral issue, emphasizing that “the food that our kids eat does have a direct effect on how they learn.” “So this isn’t a luxury. This isn’t a set-aside. This isn’t a sidebar,” she said. One recent study showed that kids who ate breakfast were more attentive. They had faster response times than kids who don’t. That’s learning. And with more than 31 million children participating in the national school lunch and breakfast programs, good nutrition at school is more important than ever.”