Battle to stem childhood obesity expected to be a focus of 2012

The Takeaway

Some 48.5 million children live in the United States. Of them, one-third are overweight or even obese.

Some two-thirds of American children regularly eat school lunches, prepared under the auspices of the federal school lunch program. Now comes a 2011 University of Michigan study of more than a thousand middle school students that found those who regularly ate school lunches were 29 percent more likely to be obese than those who brought lunch from home.

In Memphis’ public schools, about 17 percent of high school students are obese. Tony Geraci, executive director of child nutrition for the district, said it’s time to make changes in what’s being offered.

“Right now we’re offering a lot more fruits, vegetables. We’re in the process of eliminating some of the flavored milks and bringing awareness to some of the foods that they eat,” he said. “We’ve successfully raised an entire generation of children who think fruit is a flavor and has nothing to do with food.”

And Geraci said the lessons that are hopefully now being taught in schools also need to be reinforced at home, where many kids can walk to the fridge or freezer and find soda, ice cream and chips — just waiting to be eaten.

“You have to expose kids to real food. We have an issue with kids even recognizing what real food is,” Geraci said. They’re bombarded and barraged every day with processed crap and that’s their reference point. That’s what they think real food is.”

Garaci’s hoping that by bringing those sorts of foods into schools will hopefully start a conversation around what good food is.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Congress passed a bill proclaiming that a slice of pizza counted as a vegetable in school lunches — overruling a U.S. Department of Agriculture effort to tighten up food standards. Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University and author of “Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety,” said if we want to see real change, we’re going to need a new set of elected leaders.

“Throw the bums out. Elect elected officials who represent something about public health, more than corporate health,” she said.

She said it’s astounding that Congress was micromanaging what the USDA was trying to accomplish. Schools set an example for what’s normal to eat, she said.

“If you’re fed junk food in schools, the message that is sent to kids is that junk food is what they’re supposed to be eating,” Nestle said. “If somebody in a school really cares about what kids are eating and is serving delicious food and really is involved with the kids and talks with them about it, then that tells kids food is really important. And adults care about it and care about what they’re eating.”

So while what is served in the lunch room is important because of its nutritional value — or lack thereof — Nestle said its impact can go far beyond the cafeteria walls.

For parents, who are often tired and faced with tight budgets, it can be both easier and cheaper to serve convenience foods with low nutritional value, as opposed to fruits and vegetables. And, they’re not interested in fighting with their kids over food — which is often what they get when they try to introduce healthy options at the family table, Nestle said.

“That’s really what you have to do if you’re trying to teach your kids to be healthy,” she said. “In an environment in which the entire food environment is setup to make kids each junk food, preferably all the time.”

Just a few years ago, Memphis was named both the most sedentary and most obese city in America. Garaci, who was brought to Memphis thanks to a special grant from Walmart, designed to promote childhood nutrition, said the school district has a physical education program and is using the Walmart grant to redesign its entire food program. 

“The only way you can take (childhood nutrition) back is to start recreating the food you’re serving kids,” he said. “We canceled all our orders of Pop-Tarts and cookies and things like that and started doing our own stuff. We actually cooked our own chicken on the bone, which was kind of unheard of in this industry.”

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