"Renegade lunch lady" Ann Cooper talks about the coming revolution in the way kids eat at school -- local, sustainable, seasonal and even educational food.
Hopefully this revolution will also influence the number of junk food ads on TV. The association between television viewing and childhood obesity is directly related to children's exposure to commercials that advertise unhealthy foods, according to a new study.
The study is the first to break down the types of television children watch to better determine whether different kinds of content may exert different effects on obesity.
The researchers gathered data from primary caregivers of more than 3,500 children, ranging from infants to 12-year-olds. Through time-use diaries, study respondents reported their children's activities, including television viewing, throughout the course of an entire weekday and an entire weekend day.
Among all children, commercial viewing was significantly associated with higher BMI, although the effect was stronger for children younger than 7.
It is a well-known fact that many of the top diseases plaguing the United States are diet-related, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. The National Institutes of Health even states that four of the six leading causes of death in the U.S. are linked to unhealthy diets.
This is one of the primary reasons that has lead to the startling fact that the current generation is the first one in recorded history in which their lifespan will actually be shorter than their parents. This is primarily due to chronic degenerative diseases that result from insulin and leptin resistance.
School Lunch Programs Get a Failing Grade
Processed foods are the norm at most school cafeterias, where under $1 a day is spent to feed your children.
To be fair, schools are on tight budgets, and though they may have good intentions, they are often challenged to introduce healthier foods, particularly when kids prefer the junk-food versions, or have not been introduced to healthier foods.
This is where Chef Ann Cooper’s program is such a bright star, as she’s not only incorporating healthier foods into the cafeteria, she’s heading up cooking and gardening classes that teach kids the roots of where their food comes from, along with the reasons why eating healthy is such a smart choice.
This lays the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating choices.
Here is just a sampling of some of the accomplishments that have been made at Ann Cooper’s Berkeley Unified School District:
Made delicious, nutritious, seasonal and sustainable food a priority
Elimination of trans-fats and high-fructose corn syrup as well as reduced and or eliminated where possible refined sugars and refined flours
Cooking non-processed foods from scratch while, eliminating all highly processed menu items
Salad bars with a majority of fresh items in every school
Universal breakfast at every school
Fresh fruits and vegetables served every day
Antibiotic- and hormone-free or organic milk served daily
All hamburgers and hotdogs are hormone- and antibiotic-free as well as grass finished
Purchasing with a high priority on local, regional and organic foods, as well as foods purchased from small local companies.
These changes are what’s needed on a nationwide basis, not only at schools but also at home. The simplest way back toward health, for children and adults alike, is to focus on WHOLE foods -- foods that have not been processed or altered from their original state. Food that has been grown or raised as nature intended, without the use of chemical additives, pesticides and fertilizers.
As Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma, said:
“Let's look at the school lunch program. This is where we're feeding a big part of our population. We are essentially feeding them fast food and teaching them how to eat it quickly.
If we could spend a dollar or more per day per child and work on the nutritional quality of that food – and require that a certain percentage of that school lunch fund in every school district has to be spent within 100 miles to revive local agriculture, to create more jobs on farms, to rural redevelopment – you will achieve a great many goals through doing that.
You will have a healthier population of kids who will perform better in the afternoon after that lunch. You will have the shot in the arm to local economies through helping local agriculture. And you will teach this generation habits that will last a lifetime about eating.”
Schools with Healthier Lunches Reap Major Benefits
Altering school lunches CAN help diminish illness and increase learning. In one Swedish study, when they eliminated all sweet buns, sweet drinks, and candy from school premises, they saw a 6 percent drop in obesity in four years.
Behavioral problems have also been remedied by giving kids healthier lunches at school.
For instance, in 1997 one Wisconsin high school instituted a healthy lunch program. No longer were the cafeterias filled with fast-food nachos and French fries; instead they were filled with fresh salads, meats, whole-grain bread and fruit. At the same time, vending machines were removed and good drinking water added.
The program is based on work done some 30 years ago by Dr. Feingold. He recommended that eliminating synthetic colors, synthetic flavors, and the preservatives BHA, BHT, and TBHQ would be beneficial to health, learning and behavior problems in children. However, his findings were not accepted by most medical professionals at that time.
When the healthier diet had been in effect for close to five years, the school showed amazing results. In annual state reports, the school’s incidence of dropouts, expulsion, drug use, weapons and suicide was zero. On top of this, reports said that grades improved. This from a school that previously reported having discipline problems and students carrying weapons.
Barriers to Healthier School Lunches, and What You Can Do
When it really comes down to it, it is not just the schools' burden here. It is everyone's job to change the eating habits of our young.
Food is a part of the lifestyle choices first learned at home, and then massive media brainwashing enters the picture, not only at schools (who often sell fast-food meals right in their cafeteria) but also via TV ads, video games and the Internet.
In fact, a new study from the UCLA School of Public Health found that the more junk-food commercials children see, the more likely they are to be overweight or obese. This is because clever marketing will cause them to annoy their parents until they purchase foods that are loaded with fructose.
During Saturday morning cartoons alone, your child will see a food ad once every five minutes, and it will most likely be for a junk food like soda, candy, snacks, or fast food. The food industry spends billions of dollars seeking to influence your children's food choices, so you have a major battle to defeat these unhealthy marketing messages.
You need to educate yourself about proper nutrition and the dangers of junk food and processed foods in order to change the food culture of your entire family.
Once you take charge, then, perhaps, we might see a trend reversal in obesity, diabetes, and a whole host of other preventable diseases that plague the United States right now.
Children will not know which foods are healthy unless you, as a parent, teach it to them. Poor eating habits at home, combined with poor food choices at school, may set your child up for long-term physical and behavioral problems.
Making the whole situation even more difficult is the massive amount of soda and vending machines that give students easy access to these health-harming foods throughout the day (while schools get kickbacks from the junk food sales). Soda machines ARE being phased out of U.S. schools, but it is a slow process.
So when it comes time to make a choice between fast food or real food -- do your kids a favor and teach them how to make the best choice, right from the very beginning.
In the meantime, you can join Chef Ann Cooper’s National School Food Challenge, and make the pledge to provide fresh, local and healthy food to your children both at school and at home.
If there were more people like “Renegade lunch lady” Ann Cooper heading up the cafeterias at U.S. schools, America would be a healthier place. Actually that is what I hope to do, as I am in communication with her team and we are seeking to work together to spread her program to school districts across the country.
Interestingly, when I spoke with Ann -- who is obviously a major advocate of healthy food -- she was aware that high fructose corn syrup was not good. However, she did not appreciate that it was not so much HFCS that was the issue but fructose in general. Foods like Agave, which are 80% fructose, are actually far worse than HFCS.