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Eat fruit? Kids just might

Special to The Times

You know how hard it can be to say no.

But our tendency to accept what we’re offered may have positive value when it comes to encouraging children to choose -- and eat -- healthier food at school. A new report suggests that there’s a simple, low-cost approach: Just offer it to them.

That’s the conclusion of a pilot program in Guilford, Conn., where school cafeteria servers were trained to ask elementary school students, “Would you like fruit or juice with your lunch?” Ninety percent of the children said yes. What’s more, 80% then consumed the fruit or juice that they put on their trays.

Compare those numbers with students at a nearby school who also participated in the study. At lunch, the same fruit and juice was available, but it wasn’t personally offered to the kids. The difference? Just 60% of these students reached for fruit or juice on their own.

These findings “have pretty significant implications,” says the pilot program’s designer, Marlene Schwartz, director of research and school programs at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. They suggest, she says, that if the National School Lunch Program were to modify its regulations and had servers actually encourage children to eat fruits and vegetables, their consumption might increase.

It’s that kind of simple strategy that school administrators, government officials and parents need to employ to help stem the childhood obesity problem. An estimated 16% of children and teens are overweight or obese, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Each year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture pays for 9 million breakfasts and 30 million lunches for students. But experts say the quality of some of those meals is in question. School cafeterias aren’t required, for example, to serve food that meets the 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines -- a situation that the USDA says it hopes to change this year. The USDA also plans a multibillion-dollar effort to expand the consumption of fruit and vegetables served in school cafeterias over the next 10 years.

But none of those changes address what many say is a major hurdle to improving school nutrition: the sale of so-called competitive foods in school vending machines and stores, and sold at school fundraisers and a la carte in school snack bars. There are no USDA regulations dictating the quality of these foods and beverages.

At the Promise Academy in New York’s Harlem, the nearly 700 mostly low-income students dine daily on meals that are low in sodium and fat. Breakfast offerings include hot, whole-grain cereal, whole-wheat waffles or French toast with turkey sausage. Rather than syrup, students get fruit toppings.

Lunch includes such healthy fare as whole-grain pasta with meat sauce and baked free-range chicken with yellow rice and zucchini. For snacks, students get fruit, vegetables and other healthy offerings, since “there are no vending machines in the building,” said Marty Lipp, communications director of the public charter school. “There’s also no cake, ice cream or cookies and no outside foods are allowed in.”

As might be expected, “there certainly are kids who complain about this or that, or won’t eat certain things,” Lipp said. “But it is an educational process. Some kids are seeing foods for the first time, like spinach pasta or even things like broccoli.”

Promise Academy officials point out that helping students and their families improve their eating habits is a matter of health: 42% of the 176 middle school students -- nearly three times the national average -- are overweight or obese.

In California, chef Ann Cooper -- nicknamed the “Renegade Lunch Lady” -- is director of nutrition services for the 16 schools in the Berkeley Unified School District. “We don’t serve food that is very out of the ordinary,” Cooper notes. “We just do it healthier.”

So roast chicken or “oven fried” chicken that contains no added fat has replaced greasy chicken fingers; baked and roasted potatoes are served in place of French fries. There are organic granola bars, fresh and dried fruit, whole-grain pretzels and organic crackers, occasionally with cheese, for snacks.

“Kids don’t necessarily like change,” Cooper notes. “Nobody does. So you really have to work with them.”

And she notes, “the food has to taste good.”


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