Healthier meals for students a must; but kids aren't happy

As I've been gathering information, doing interviews, and researching the story about school meals and nutrition that appears in today's edition of the Hampton Chronicle, one thing has become very clear: most of the students I spoke with do not like the new healthier food choices and guidelines.

     The Healthy Kids Act – passed in 2010 – requires schools across the country to implement new and healthier meals for students. Whether it is ingredients, meal composition, or the reduction of fats and salt – the changes have been made to help children become healthier. These changes reduce their sodium and fat intake, allow for more fresh fruits and vegetables, and are intended to fight off epidemic problems of obesity and Type 2 Diabetes.

     There is no doubt in anyone's mind that large percentages of the nation's children – as well as most adults – eat poor diets that feature too much fat, too much salt, and too much sugar. And, our portion sizes are astronomically larger than what is healthy.

     The fact is, America is an obese country with poor eating habits. If you don't believe me, I suggest you visit a foreign country sometime – preferably a Third World one – where all one needs to do is walk around a while to notice there are not very many over-weight people. And to see that processed foods – shown in study after study to be less healthy – are rare in their food systems.

     The problems of Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and terrible diets are not ones that are easily solved.

     After all, eating poorly is ingrained in our consciousness by a flood of mass marketing that encourages we the eaters to consume fast food, unhealthy snacks, gallons of sugary soda, and other stuff that is not-so-good for us.

     Child-friendly imagery of clowns like Ronald McDonald, toys in meals, and a bombardment of TV ads that push soda, processed foods and fatty items create in youth an unquestioned desire for those products.

     After research and interviewing the Hampton-Dumont Community School District head of child nutrition – Shirley Walker – about the new meals, I realized that these new healthy changes are definitely better for the students.

     But, following my talks with dozens of students of various grades, it's obvious that the children definitely do not like the changes nor do they understand them.

     As I cruised around town – I took the opportunity to ask students what they think of the new, healthier meals. I posed a simple question to kids: do you like the new food?

     The consensus was a resounding no; and, as one student said, "the new menus suck."

     The top complaint I received was echoed by almost every student I spoke to – the new meals are far less filling and leave them feeling hungry.

     Every student in my informal survey told me that they wanted more meat and protein than they are receiving – which is no more than 3.5 ounces of protein per day - split between lunch and breakfast.

     The desire for more protein was voiced especially vigorously by athletes, who said they need more caloric intake in order to fuel their athletic adventures – whether it be football, cross country, or other sports.

     One other big gripe was the addition of new (to this region) and diverse vegetables – stuff like beets, squash, and other "unusual" items such as Brussels sprouts. I even heard from teachers at the high school how much they themselves dislike some of the new veggie options.

     As our publisher – Ryan Harvey - here at the Chronicle said, his kids want a more "Midwestern" diet of meat and potatoes. So did most of the students I spoke to; stick to the basics that we've had our entire lives.

     The students interviewed also complained about the removal of dessert from the school lunch menu – and they also griped that if there is a cookie, it's made from whole grains – i.e it isn't tasty and just doesn't appeal to them.

     There is also what students refer to as a "fruit cop," a school employee who works the salad bar and ensures each student has a fruit on their plate. Those caught with out a fruit serving are sent back to get one – whether they eat it or not doesn't matter, students said, they just are required to take one.

     In talking to Walker, the school child nutrition supervisor, she admitted that younger students are much more picky and finicky when it comes to the food they will eat and what they dislike. High school students, Walker said, are more adaptable.

     It's understandable that students may not like the new meals, ingredients and changes they're being forced to accept. It's natural for anyone who has been eating a specific diet to not like a new food or enjoy the meal when they're told what to eat, not getting to chose whatever they want.

     However, there is no doubt about the healthiness of the new meals. The reduction of fat, salt and sugars while adding in more fresh vegetables and fruits along with switching to whole grain is hopefully going to help begin to swing the tide from obesity and associated diseases toward healthier kids.

     I believe getting students to accept the new meals can be aided by adding education to the mix - which I didn't sense that students are getting.

     If children receive education about the health benefits of their new school meals, then maybe they'll begin to realize it's going to benefit them both mentally and physically.

     Explaining how whole grains provide better, more sustained energy than sugar helps battle misconceptions from athletes who don't think they're getting the right amount of food to fuel their sports endeavors.

     Telling students about the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables in their diet may help them realize how critical those foods are in providing vitamins and fiber – not to mention increased brain function.

     It's also partly the responsibility of parents to encourage their kids to eat better and set an example by doing it themselves. If a child sees mom or dad eating fast food burgers and fries, guzzling soda, and eating massive portions, they're going to mimic that behavior.

     In the end, the new food options and ingredient changes are going to only help create a new and healthier generation of children.

     While one parent or a child may see beets or squash as reprehensible and disgusting, I see an opportunity to improve nutrition and re-teach them that eating well can be beneficial and also taste good.

     These changes are only in the beginning phases, and it will take some time for children to adjust and accept them.

     In a few years, my guess – and hope – is that healthier meals will be seen as normal and celebrated, not derided and avoided.