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Blame bad habits not school lunches

Published April 25. 2011 08:35AM

I have been staring at a strip of paper that has the above headline scribbled on it for about an hour early one Saturday morning. Underneath it are six articles from newspapers and the Internet generally related to the headline.

That's usually all I need. Give me a headline, a half dozen articles, and in five hours or so another "Fitness Master" article is ready for print.

But this time, the column just isn't coming together. Instead of writing, I keep rehashing two things that happened this week in school.

So I'm going to "Go with it," what writing guru Natalie Goldberg suggests in this situation. She believes that some of your best writing occurs when your mind "leaps" from your topic to a seemingly unrelated one.

That's because the leap really isn't a leap at all.

It's your subconscious recognizing common ground. If you write what's on your mind, it usually gets at the essence of what you're trying to convey.

Goldberg's suggestion is going to be used today.

PSSA test proctors are supposed to walk the rows to make sure the students are doing the proper sections and staying motivated. So after yet another trip up and down the aisles during the a.m. test on the second day, I stood at the podium and looked out at my class really looked at them and the cold reality settled upon me.

According to current medical guidelines, 10 out of the 11 girls in the room would be considered either overweight or obese during a physical exam. While I've written at length about the obesity epidemic and had seen this class already for 120 days this near unanimity had somehow escaped me.

So when the p.m. class entered, I immediately assessed those girls. This class fared a bit better, but the combined total is still disturbing. My estimate is that 20 of the 28 girls I monitored during PSSA testing more than 71 percent! would be considered either overweight or obese by current medical standards.

Which brings me to the second thought stuck in my head: how interested my students still are in the Tastykake Krimpet I keep my closet. Years ago, I confiscated a Krimpet from a boy during our midmorning snack time since a Krimpet is hardly a healthy snack. I wrapped it in school-issue brown paper towel and told the boy to get it on his way to lunch.

He forgot. I forgot. About eight weeks later, I found it behind reams of composition paper in my closet.

Surprisingly, snack cake had sprouted no mold. It was smaller from the loss of water, but otherwise looked totally normal.

The brown paper towel it was wrapped in, however, did not. Most of it was stained almost like the inside of a pizza box a darker color.

And the Krimpet had leeched enough oil to make the paper towel slick to the touch.

This October when I told that story, one boy suggested we try the experiment again and donated a Krimpet. I forget it's there, but every two weeks or so, a student asks, "How's the Krimpet doing?"

I take it out of my cabinet and hold it up. It still looks good enough to eat, but this time the leeching fat has not only stained the brown paper towel but also the cardboard box the Krimpet sits upon.

So how in the world do these stories relate to the headline?

Almost all of my students seem interested in theoretical concept of good nutrition when we discuss it, yet relatively few put the theory into practice. This inconsistency exemplifies the same sort of inconsistencies I found when reviewing the research gathered on this topic.

In January, the USDA recommended dramatic changes in school lunches since the obesity epidemic is now affecting more than 9 million children about 15 percent of all those between the ages of six and 11 are overweight and 17 percent of all those between two and 19 are obese. The recommendation comes on the heels of a law enacted last December, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which will help pay for the healthier foods that schools are now expected to provide.

This means school cafeterias are supposed to increase the amount of vegetables and whole grains offered, cut out items like full-fat milk products, and cut back on the use of starchy potatoes in the forms of chips, tots, and fries.

Yet within a week of that announcement came another: attempts to change eating habits by adding the nutrition facts to fast food menus had no change in purchases over 13 months at the Taco Bell locations studied in the Seattle area. In fact, lead author of the study Eric Finkelstein, Ph.D. and associate professor of health services at Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School, said, "We could not detect even the slightest hint of changes in purchasing behavior."

By February, new national dietary guidelines called for all Americans to eat less, reduce salt consumption, increase vegetable and fruit consumption, and cut back heavily of sugary drinks.

The suggestion is clear and common sense. After all, how hard would it be to make sure that half of each plateful of food you eat be comprised of fruits and vegetables, as Margo Wootan, author of Food Politics and the nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, suggests?

How hard would it be for parents to have this as a rule in the household for everyone at every meal, a rule that if enforced often enough and early enough would develop into a habit for many children?

It's bad habits, not bad school lunches, that are at the heart of the childhood obesity epidemic.

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