By Francis Koster, Ed.D.
One quarter of all US counties saw an actual reduction in life expectancy for women between 1997 and 2007. Girls born today are expected to live shorter lives than their mothers. Boys are also seeing declines in life expectancy - in some parts of the United States, the average male would live longer if they lived in Africa! Our country is now ranked 50th in the world for life expectancy!iii What is going on here?
Much of this downward path has been proven to be caused by eating habits which are formed as youngsters. The result is that over 1/3 of our fellow citizens are obese, and another 1/3 are overweight enough to shorten their livesiv.
Pediatricians are now routinely performing tests on youngsters for heart disease and diabetes – which as recently as 15 years ago were considered diseases of adults. Unless we adults do something, this does not bode well for our kids, or our country.
Another startling factoid: one in two American school children are now eligible to receive free or reduced price lunches due to their poverty level. You read that right - 31 million kids out of 55 million get subsidized food due to their poverty level.
And those lunches, aimed right at the less fortunate among us, help make them fat. The USDA school lunch program design approved in 2005 allowed less than 5 percent of the budget to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.v
It is one thing to have a nation devastated by an epidemic caused by germs and infection - that may be out of our control. It is another to cause this level of devastation by feeding our kids badly. The first may be visited on us.....the second surely is a self inflicted wound.
A few years ago, a pilot project to reform the school lunch program by expanding the offerings of fruits and vegetables at an cost of between 5 and 14 cents per meal was started at the federal level to see what the impact would be. Results were very impressive, and expansion was planned, but it was objected to by the food industry and some elected officials who expressed concern over its budget impacts, and expansion was stopped in October of 2011.
My college Linda van Slyke found some wonderful examples of success stories by reviewing projects done during the pilot phase, and uncovered some other projects initiated by local community leaders acting with local funds and initiative. They provide us with a powerful path forward.
California’s Riverside Unified School District (RUSD) has a K-6 Farm to School Program. Its Farmers’ Market Salad Bar is stocked daily with 50-100% of locally-grown produce (depending upon the season). Special efforts are made to include community farmers in the program by incorporating visits by farmers to the classrooms, and visits by students to the farms. Teacher training and specialized curricula are also a part of these efforts. The program began with the help of grant funding in 2005, but RUSD is now sustaining the program with its own funding resources.vi A 2008-2009 research study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that “food costs were no greater in the salad bar schools compared to the comparison schools.”vii This study also found that this RUSD program “generates revenue for small farmers.” viii
New Haven Public schools began the switch to whole grains two years ago and now offers salad bars in 85% of its 46 public schools. The school system has also increased the amount of green and orange vegetables, and serves brown rice instead of white. Students get involved on a farm-to-table level via community gardens at some schools where they can grow vegetables that are then made available on the salad bar. ix
In 2000, LAUSD launched a salad-bar program in three of its schools. They saw an 84% increase in fruit-and-vegetable consumption during lunch. More than half the children chose the salad bar for lunch on any given school day. These benefits were accompanied by a significant daily decrease in the children’s total calories, as well as in their consumption of cholesterol and saturated fats.x
Many other schools would like to imitate these success stories, but are blocked by lack of funds - they don't have the extra 5-14 cents per meal per day it would take.
It is time to acknowledge that we have a major national problem on our hands.
And this is a "pay me now or pay me later" problem for the taxpayer. Cough up the pennies per day for good school food, or the hundreds and thousands of dollars a day for doctors and hospital care later.
This is up to the adults to fix, acting as good parents, elected officials, and caring people. You can help by working with your local schools to develop a system of measurements about food offerings, and weight gains among students, and devising programs to get locally grown fruits and vegetables to the students. The besieged school administrators need you to support them - and so does our country.
1) Life expectancy in most US counties falls behind world’s healthiest nationsInstitute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington. June 15, 2011
iv http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/overwt.htm, June 2011 data tables