Fast-Food Children, Part Two

An experiment with healthier school lunches gets under way

It is the loudest dining room I have ever witnessed. Not only is every one of the hundreds of patrons talking at full pitch, and incessantly, but also the ricocheting acoustics in the large, lofty space make it seem as if they are screeching at the top of their lungs. The plastic plate in front of me contains beige chicken stew over rice, canned peas off to the side, and a whole-wheat bun. I also have an egg roll the size of a large burrito, as well as a clear plastic beverage cup filled with lettuce, a cherry tomato, a baby carrot, and some sort of white salad dressing. Apples and oranges are available for dessert, or at least they were earlier; apparently both have proven so popular with today's lunch crowd that the kitchen is all out. I choose instead a frozen paper cone with the words pink lemonade juice bar written on the side. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to drink it (it comes with a little plastic straw) or eat it by pushing it through the paper like a cup of Italian ice (it is, after all, frozen). In either case, it proves especially refreshing coming after that regrettable egg roll. No one would deny that the room could be quieter and the ambiance warmer, but service is sharp as can be; a janitor swoops up my plate and tosses it into the rolling trash bin just moments after I have finished eating. Bravo!

When we last left off ("Fast-Food Children," January 11, 2007), Principal Bernard Osborn, of the brand-new David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center in North Miami, was optimistic about helping his school's children improve their health through increased nutritional education and awareness, exercise in a gymnasium with state-of-the-art cardiovascular equipment, and higher-quality comestibles substituted for the low-grade stuff on the Miami-Dade Department of Food and Nutrition's countywide cafeteria menu. Now, with the school's inaugural year having just come to a close, Osborn is of the opinion that two out of three wasn't bad for a start.

"You have to choose your battles," the principal acknowledges by way of explaining what seems to be a case of lowered expectations. "I have to get these kids ready to come to school and learn, get them ready for FCAT, and perform other aspects of my job, so I can't focus all of my attention on the food. But we've got them talking about how important it is to eat healthy. We've bought posters on eating healthy, we've bought books, we're having people come in and do yoga, parent-teacher workshops, and so forth. We hear from parents who tell us that their kids stop them from buying certain packaged goods in Publix because of what the labels say. That to me suggests we are successful in what we're doing education-wise. And we've got them exercising, too."

One part of the equation that hasn't panned out as planned is the addition of better foods to the cafeteria menu. "That's a longer process," admits Osborn. "We were supposed to be a test school for new products, but that didn't happen." The roadblock? "Funding. That was it. If we could have just gotten some of the better foods in, tried them out, and said, Okay, let's see what the cost would be for organic meat or whatever.' It didn't work out quite that way." Then he adds, "You can't move mountains; you can only move little rocks."

Some pebbles have been pushed: The chicken in the stew was trans-fat-free (and fairly tasty, too). The peas were canned, but sans salt, sugar, butter, or any unhealthy additives. There was no soda, no sweet desserts, nor any butter with the wheat bun. Side salads were encouraged, and a main-course chicken fajita salad was likewise displayed as an alternative to the stew. Fresh fruit is just about always around. (In fairness, they ran out because the school year was winding down and they were finishing up their products.) On the other hand, the pink lemonade bar was filled with fructose, the rice was white, and the egg roll tasted exactly what egg rolls probably tasted like in the very first school cafeteria ever.

Osborn will be trying a different tack come the fall. "We're going to be in Arthur Agatston's HOPS [Healthier Options for Public Schools] program. We have cardiovascular equipment that not many schools have, so they'll be able to see how the program works when adding exercise." (Agatston's South Beach Diet has been criticized for not emphasizing the importance of physical activity.) The HOPS project is an admirable one, but available only to a minuscule number of schools. The rest of the educators around the county and nation who are concerned with combating childhood obesity face the same obstacle as Osborn: no dough.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently stepped up in a big way to change all of that. The Wheatgerminator added $8.5 million to his final budget revision for the purpose of "integrating fresh produce, whole grains, and other healthy choices into school meals." Our so-far-astonishingly commonsensical Governor Crist needs to do likewise. Two weeks ago he signed a law requiring Florida's elementary schools to offer 30 minutes of physical education every day. That's great. But developing wholesome eating habits in our youth must also be a key component of any comprehensive healthcare plan that hopes to succeed in the long haul.

So c'mon, Charlie -- open up the coffers and help put healthier food on our kids' school cafeteria trays. Is there a politician from either party who would dare object?

 
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