School Food, Beyond the Cafeteria

Janet Poppendieck, author of Free for All

After decades on the rise, obesity rates have stabilized among most groups of Americans, according to two CDC studies published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But rates remain high, and increased among the heaviest boys aged 6 to 19. With 17% of children considered obese, Michelle Obama has said that reducing childhood obesity and promoting healthy eating will be her focus in 2010. School lunches are already at the forefront of this issue, with efforts underway to bring more fresh, nutritious foods to the cafeteria, but many are tracing the problem far beyond the lunch tray. Here’s what some UC Press authors have to say.

Janet Poppendieck finds that fixing school food means looking at many factors: “The eating habits of our children reflect changes in the way we produce, process, and distribute and consume food in this country”, she says in her book Free for All. In a Salon.com interview yesterday, Poppendieck talks about the web of forces, from children as consumers to government policies and schools’ budget problems, that put pizza and fries on school lunch trays, and calls for a sweeping change in cafeterias across the country: free, nutritious lunches for all. Such a plan, she says, would save administrative costs, reduce waste, and would be an opportunity for schools to promote healthy eating.

SFGate reported yesterday that starting in February, the chocolate milk served in San Francisco public schools will be sweetened with sucrose instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Quoted in the article, Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, Safe Food and other books, applauded the effort but advised eliminating sugar altogether: “If parents really want the lunches to be healthier, they need to work on cutting down on all kinds of sugars and start serving kids real food”.

On her blog, Nestle chalks the rise in obesity since 1980 up to calories—larger portions and less exercise. Julie Guthman, author of Agrarian Dreams and a forthcoming UC Press book on obesity, argues in a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed that these factors do not fully explain the sharp increase. She points to emerging links between endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in plastics and obesity, and says that while getting more fruits and vegetables into school lunches is important, environmental regulation is also needed: “In light of what we are learning about endocrine-disrupting chemicals, regulatory sticks are as important as fresh carrots”.

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