Community Commentary:Students need better options

Domino's Pizza, assorted sandwiches and salad, chicken patties, teriyaki burger, chili dogs, grilled cheese, a Chalupa: Is this what you would feed your kids for lunch?

The Glendale Unified School District would. The above is the typical menu for lunch at Hoover High School. Chili dogs, chalupas and pizza — not exactly what you'd call a well-balanced meal.

Starting in July, certain snacks will be banned from all public high schools in California. Ahead of other schools, Hoover High School has already decreased the number of soda vending machines and discontinued the sale of all fried snacks. The school has taken an admirable lead in reducing the supply of unhealthy vending machine snacks even before the law's mandate.

OK, so, consider the options Hoover students are left with — chili dogs, grilled cheese and burgers — options neither wholesome nor healthy.

Parents and schools are the primarily influences on a students' eating behavior, developed mainly during childhood and adolescence. With parents working full-time, many of the students' nutritional habits will be formed at school. Moreover, eating behaviors formed during adolescence become very difficult to change later on in life. Being accustomed to foods such as chili dogs and cheeseburgers can put students on a dangerous life trajectory in which they will become victims of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

Our schools must take the necessary measures to ensure that our students are not eating McDonald's-like food for one of the most important meals of the day. Because adolescents are prone to risky eating behavior, our schools must take the initial step to offer food options that will make adolescents more likely to choose healthy foods and develop healthy eating habits.

Offering only salad and sandwiches alongside chili dogs, chalupas and pizza is not an effective way to form healthy eating habits. A 16-year old will probably choose a slice of pizza over a salad. That's why our schools need to make the choice easier. By replacing some of the current options with foods like rice or vegetables, students will have more healthy options to choose from and therefore will more likely pick a healthier meal.

This shift toward a healthier menu is possible even with a limited budget. The Chez Panisse Foundation began a School Lunch Initiative in public high schools of Berkeley, Calif., in 2005 that introduced freshly cooked, organic foods to the lunch menu while eliminating almost all processed foods.

This change was made possible even with the district's limited food service budget.

The remarkable thing about this program is that it is designed to be replicated for use by other school districts. It is flexible to the budget limitations of every district. Therefore, our schools will be able to adopt such a program despite financial limitations.

The full benefits of the program are in the process of being evaluated. But knowing that processed foods increase the risk of obesity, cancer and diabetes, our schools must make the shift toward offering healthier food.

Radically changing the school menu will definitely take time. However, our schools can begin with baby steps. Perhaps try one or two organic food options on the menu. Or dedicate one day a week for fresh-cooked, organic food. It is only with these baby steps that we can gradually move toward forming healthy eating habits in our students.

Research shows that one in three children in Los Angeles County are either overweight or at the risk of being overweight. We need to ensure that our students do not perpetuate this statistic. Programs like the school lunch initiative can greatly benefit our students and our district. Students will perform better academically and be more physically active if they maintain good nutrition. This is a win-win situation for both the students and the schools. Students are more likely to maintain the healthy eating habits they develop during adolescence and avoid chronic diseases like diabetes. And schools are likely to see improvements in student performance levels.

But we can't make this change without your help. Contact the Glendale Unified School District. Call the school board members. Because, after all, what's at stake is our students' lives.

  • ANISHA PATEL attends Stanford University and is a former student at Hoover High School.
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