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Parents' Role in School Lunch

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By Betsy Landers, President of the National PTA

It's a question parents know well: "How was school today?" This year, parents need to ask another question: "How was lunch today?" My hope is that students give an enthusiastic thumbs up, telling a story of a delicious plate full of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. But let's be honest: children probably won't say that. Not yet at least.

As I'm sure we've all heard by now, school lunches are different this year. As part of a law that passed in 2010, schools participating in the National School Lunch Program (101,000 schools nationwide) will be serving meals with more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free milk, and portion sizes appropriate for their age groups. Why? There's a laundry list of reasons, but my favorite is that our kids deserve the best, and it is our responsibility as parents and educators to ensure the food they put in their bodies in school leaves them ready to learn and on a path to a healthy life.

It is critical to create healthy eating habits in children now to help prevent projections that half of U.S. adults will be obese by 2030 unless Americans change their ways, according to a new report released this month by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Many other studies have consistently shown that obesity is associated with poor levels of academic achievement. Fighting obesity is not just a health issue; it's integral to the academic success of our nation's children.

The reality nationwide is that one-third of our kids are overweight and obese. You've heard that statistic before and you may be thinking right now, "But what about those kids that play sports and need more food!" These new school nutrition standards were not a result of the U.S. Department of Agriculture pulling meal components out of the sky. They are based on the 2010 Nutrition Guidelines for Americans and recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, based on the most updated knowledge of the nutrition needs for the average child in their respective age range. What's more, for many high school students, calorie levels are similar to previous years; the meals just look less like fast food and more like a balanced meal. That means students may find steamed squash on their plates where there once were tater tots, and chicken nuggets that are baked with whole grain bread crumbs.

An upgrade through most kids' eyes? Probably not! But that's where parents and adults come in. As parents it is our role to make sure our kids get what they need and not what they think they need. As kids transition to healthier options this year, we must make sure that we are sending a positive message that these updates are what is best for them — physically and even academically. Parents should talk to children about how strong these new meals will make them and how healthy bodies lead to better academic performance. Parents can bring children along to the grocery store and ask them to pick out the fruits or vegetables that they have tried at school to reinforce healthy habits at home.

One of the criticisms of the new meals is that they are not meeting the needs of student-athletes. That's a real concern for some students. What can parents do? Most schools have supplementary sides available in the cafeteria that students can purchase. Some schools may even be able to offer extra fruits and vegetables at no cost to students. To ensure all these options are healthy, parents should talk to the school food service director, administrators and coaches on the options for student-athletes.

Parents can always send additional foods from home for student-athletes to consume during lunch or before practice. Parents must remember that the new school meals are the baseline and designed to meet the average student's needs. For children with special dietary needs, parents have to be proactive — working with their children and the school to meet their child's needs, while still respecting the integrity of the program. That program is meeting the needs of most children.

As parents we know that any time there are changes to anything, there are going to be bumps in the road. For too many years, we let many of our children eat foods in school that were too high in sodium, fat and calories for their age ranges, and too low in the nutrients that their growing bodies need. I'd ask again that parents consider asking their children how lunch was when they come home from school this week. Regardless of their answer, parents should shed positive light on the exciting changes that are going on in the lunchroom. Because their children are worth it!

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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