When Stephanie Jackson’s three children put up a fight about the food she serves, she repeats what has become a family mantra: “Eat what you don’t like, and enjoy what you do like.”
Jackson, of Columbia, tries to ensure that her kids eat enough fruit and vegetables by offering carrots as a snack and salad with dinner. She tries to limit the amount of junk food they consume, but it’s not always easy.
“A big word that moms can say is, ‘No,’” Jackson said. “What kids want is not always healthy for them.”
Despite the efforts of parents like Jackson, the number of overweight children in Missouri is growing. State health officials report that in 2001, 21.5 percent of children between the ages of 11 and 14 were considered overweight — well above the national norm.
While insufficient exercise is one culprit, a 2001 Department of Health and Senior Services survey found that school-age children have unhealthy diets. The survey of more than 14,000 children found that few are getting enough servings of food groups recommended by the Food Guide Pyramid. The highest number of servings came from the sweets and fats group, while well over half the students failed to eat enough from the meat, bread, cereal and vegetable groups.
The report recommends that Missouri target pre-adolescent and adolescent children with programs that promote healthy eating. Many experts believe one solution would be to improve the nutritional value of school lunches.
Kelly Brownell, a Yale psychologist , argued in a recent article in Yale Alumni magazine that school lunch menus should be purged of pizza, hamburgers, french fries and other unhealthy fare.
Yet, high-fat foods dominate the lunch menu at Columbia’s elementary schools. In March, pizza was offered every Tuesday and Thursday. Choices on other days included chicken nuggets, tater tots, sausage links, cheeseburgers and barbecue pork sandwiches. Although healthier options are offered on some days, students are still able to choose a high-fat, high-calorie meal every day of the week.
Ann Cohen is co-chairwoman of the Missouri “Action for Healthy Kids,” a federal initiative to improve the health environment of U.S. schools. Although AFHK has not yet been officially adopted by the state, Cohen and co-chairwoman Mari Ann Bihr attended a 2002 summit in Washington to collect ideas for improving nutrition and increasing physical activity among Missouri children.
“We were mandated to choose some of those goals to ask school districts to address,” Cohen said.
Among Missouri’s goals, Cohen said, is ensuring that schools serve meals that meet federal nutrition standards, allow enough time for students to eat, schedule lunch at reasonable times in the middle of the day and give elementary students time for active, unstructured play.
Pat Brooks, food service director for the Columbia Public School District, said she recognizes the importance of childhood nutrition. But, she said, programs that target schools in attempting to curb childhood obesity are missing the mark.
“Schools aren’t the problem,” Brooks said. “The USDA tells us exactly what requirements we have to have.”
Brooks added that Columbia middle and elementary schools serve only low-fat milk, 100 percent juice, water, and a low calorie fitness water called Propel. She also said fresh fruit is offered with every meal.
“I stick by moderation and variety,” Brooks said.
Other local efforts to address the problem are focusing on exercise. The PedNet coalition, an advocacy group for pedestrian cyclists and wheelchair-users, received a $200,000 grant in November for “Bike, Walk, Wheel: A Way of Life in Columbia.” One important goal of the program is to get more children to walk or bike to school rather than ride the bus.
Obesity is rapidly catching up to smoking as the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which ranks Missouri among the worst states for both childhood and adult obesity.
Experts like Brownell, however, wonder if launching programs and initiatives that tell people what’s bad for them even works . Even those who are aware of what foods they should be eating don’t make smart choices, Brownellsaid. He proposes treating junk food like tobacco and imposing a “sin tax” that might discourage people from buying it.
Otherwise, Brownell said, “this generation of children may be the first in American history to live shorter lives than their parents.”