Two years after the National School Lunch Program made big strides toward providing students with more nutritious food, Northwest Suburban High School District 214 is considering leaving it behind. Other districts in the suburbs already have dropped out, too, as lunch sales have declined.
And the latest expansion of the lunch program by the Obama administration to include snacks and fundraisers has Superintendent Dave Schuler "a little cranked up," as reported by Melissa Silverberg. Schuler believes the district can do better striking out on its own.
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Such a strong response may seem reason enough to pick apart one of the centerpieces of the first lady's anti-obesity campaign. However, that is not our intent, as the program may work well for other districts, particularly those with significant low-income populations. Instead, we point to the new rules as an opportunity for suburban school districts to see through a broader lens in steering children toward healthy living.
While the focus of school nutrition has long centered on lunch, there are many other areas for officials to consider for their food guidelines -- policies that sometimes are ill-defined, incomplete or even nonexistent.
It takes only one outspoken parent to point out the potential confusion and inconsistencies that can come without a clear policy for food in schools. Earlier this month a West Dundee mother of a first-grader in Community Unit District 300 complained that her child's teacher used candy as an incentive for good behavior, saying it promotes poor eating habits. Our story on her complaint caused a flurry of discussion on social media.
The incident also demonstrated that lunch is only one component of a school or district nutrition plan. Beyond guidelines for meals, school policies need to determine what can be sold at fundraisers, when and what kinds of in-class snacks are allowed, what is offered at school stores and vending machines, and how the rules will be enforced. They should define what constitutes "healthy" or "nutritious" foods. The policies also could outline the types of advertising and sponsorships allowed on school grounds.
In addition, children should be taught about nutritious food choices across many subject areas, not just in health class.
School nutrition is a topic that has simmered for years, but the child obesity problem has created a sense of urgency. We support initiatives that help keep students from consuming junk food and sugary drinks at school. Still, children cannot be expected to change their eating habits overnight. Moderate adaptations to food policies over time, with support from parents at home, are key to encouraging healthful choices.
District 214 officials are creating a program they think will give students both what they want for lunch and what their bodies need. As other districts review their own lunch programs, a look at the larger school nutrition picture would serve them and their students well.