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School Food and Self-Help Nutrition Advice

Written by Jennifer Strailey

Back to school means back to cafeteria lunches. Are your kids making smart food choices?

It's 11:45 a.m. on a school day. Do you know what your kid is eating?

One hundred hungry kids race for the cafeteria and adjacent courtyard to grab their 30-minute lunch at a northern California middle school.
 
Get your kids involved in healthful food preparation at an early age.
Two-year-olds can learn simple things like stirring, spreading peanut butter on a sandwich or tossing ingredients into a bowl.
Shop for groceries with your kids and have them read and compare nutrition labels.
Get your kids interested in the culture of food as well as the nutrition.
Make meal preparation time a time for family.
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The traditional school lunch and salad bar inside the cafeteria draw modest attention. The occasional kid walks up to the sneeze guard-covered salad station to warily inspect the iceberg. A few kids queue up for a sandwich. But the real action is outside.

Here kids are noisily lined up in the sunny courtyard, fishing in their pockets for cash to buy pizza, soda and cookies, all sold from a snack cart.

School lunch carts and student stores sell snacks, sodas and fast food that are as high in sugar and fat as they are in adolescent appeal. For many schools, these outlets fund important programs, such as athletics. But as childhood obesity becomes increasingly common in this country, some are questioning the junk-food-for-jocks rationale.

"I know the faculty goes back and forth. Should we not allow any junk, any sodas or any of the carts that sell cookies and candy?" asks Heidi Thompson, a sixth-grade teacher. "But the reality is, unfortunately, sometimes that's how schools make money."

Teachers like Thompson also fear that if the schools take away the kid-friendly fries and sodas, the traditional cafeteria cuisine won't make the cut with most students. "There's a lot of debate that something, a cookie, is better than nothing at all."

The American Dietetic Association isn't so sure. In a recent study published in its journal, researchers looked at the foods sold in student stores in 24 public middle schools (grades 6 through 8) in San Diego. They found that "overall, 88.5 percent of the store inventory was high in fat and/or high in sugar."

The study also found that sugar candy accounted for one-third of student store sales, a troubling statistic when you consider that kids consume about one-third of their daily calories at school, and that half of these student store foods are sold during lunch.

The ADA has proposed that schools cut back on the sugary treats and stock their student stores with healthier options. But if kids don't get junk food at school, they'll likely get it somewhere else. The best way to get your kids to pass on snacks that are high in fat and sugar is to teach them the importance of making healthier choices.

Thompson believes that parents can make a difference, and that the earlier they talk to their kids about good nutrition, the better. She says that her sixth-grade class is "more rule bound" and tends to follow parental advice, but that "by the time they get to eighth grade, sometimes they're pushing their parents away more. They're the ones, more frequently, who are eating the junk food."

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