The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Columns

March 7, 2014

Schools struggling with kids’ combination of obesity, hunger

Little Jimmy isn’t so little. At age 11, he already is pushing 150 pounds, and his height hasn’t caught up with his weight.

His mom pampers him with Big Mac’s and stuffed crust pizzas, along with sweetened cereal and sugar-laden soft drinks. He sits in front of the TV playing X-Box instead of playing a game of basketball with his friends.

On the other hand, little Susie can’t wait to get to school so she can enjoy a hot breakfast of pancakes and syrup. At lunch she eagerly gobbles down the ever-popular turkey and gravy, green beans, mashed potatoes and rolls.

Unlike Jimmy, this may be the only complete and nutritious meal Susie will get all day long for one simple reason: There’s not much food at home.

So how do you reconcile these two problems facing children in America today — obesity and hunger?

It’s the ultimate paradox. On the one hand, nearly 5 million children in the U.S. between the ages of 6 and 17 are seriously overweight. Yet, more than half of the kids enrolled in our schools qualify for free or reduced lunch.

And sometimes the breakfast and lunch that students receive at school is the only food they get. Why? Because many parents have a hard enough time paying for utilities and other basic home operational expenses, and they depend on the school system to feed their children. Thank goodness, most school cooks take this responsibility seriously.

I know from experience that most of the staff who cooked in the schools where I taught for many years demonstrated an outstanding concern for the kids.

School employees from the kitchen once told me they tried to make sure the children were well fed on Fridays because they might not have anything to eat until the beginning of the following week.

One cook in particular informed me, “When Monday comes, these children are very hungry. One thing we think about when school is closed because of bad weather: Where are some of our children going to get something to eat?”

And yet, many school officials are concerned about the growing problem of obesity in the Mountain State, which has one of the highest proportions of overweight children in the nation.

As a result, nutrition experts have taken measures during the past decade to ensure that students are afforded healthy selections of food items on school menus.

But one of the main problems is that children, who perhaps are not as active as they should be, continue to make bad choices when it comes to dining at home or at fast-food eateries.

Therefore, the food items children get at school in the morning for breakfast and later for lunch mainly are served for their nutritional value. These options often include fruits and vegetables.

Soft-drink and candy machines have disappeared from school campuses in many states. They’ve been replaced by juice and fruit choices, eliminating items packed with sugar and high fat content. For this policy change, school administrators are to be commended.

We can also thank the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) under the United States Department of Agriculture for its vision in helping to alter the school lunch programs for the better.

In the Mountain State, all counties participate in the NSLP and must serve foods that meet the prescribed nutrition regulations.

But the dilemma still remains. How can diet experts and food service personnel deal with feeding hungry children and simultaneously help overweight youngsters develop better eating habits?

Perhaps we need to include parents in the equation by encouraging them to introduce healthy choices to their children at an early age and model smart eating habits too.

After all, we can offer children healthy selections in the food program at school, but if the students are not offered those same choices at home, it is unlikely they will change their approach to eating.

It is also doubtful kids will choose fruits and vegetables over a Big Mac or a pizza laden with toppings rich in saturated fat and hundreds of tasty extra calories. On that score, it appears we have our work cut out for us on both fronts: obesity vs. hunger.

How we resolve these two problems facing children in America today will determine how successful kids’ eating habits will be in the future.

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Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a

columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail: jabbb@suddenlink.net

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