Parenting Pearls

Unhealthy eating habits start at home.

By: Mae Sakharov
   Over the next several months I will explore three sides of childhood obesity.
   The first article will be an investigation of how our country became known as "Fat Land" and suggestions for changing how many of us eat.
   The second article will focus on exercise outside and inside of school, and the third will concentrate on methods of building self-esteem.
   American children and adults are in the midst of a health crisis, the long-term effects of which will be felt for generations to come. The escalating number of weight problems in the American population, particularly in children, has been widely publicized and documented by the media and in best selling books. (For example, see "Fat Land" by Greg Criteser and "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal" by Eric Schlosser.)
   Americans have the dubious distinction of being among the fattest people on Earth, which is a grim epitaph, the results of which we have not yet begun to calculate. However, acknowledgement, while an important step, does not lead to reform. What is needed is a change in the way we eat.
   Eating on the run and the accompanying proliferation of highly processed fast foods, with mealtimes spent in cars, gulping down food before coming home to the watch television or play video games characterize American eating, and none of those things promote a healthy life style. Obesity is a serious disease, and without very hard work, it is difficult to conquer.
   The results of having an overweight childhood can be a lifetime of health problems with high risk factors for contacting such as diabetes Type II, heart disease, stroke and other serious medical conditions.
   Unhealthy eating habits are set up early at home and made worse by habitual visits to fast food restaurants and school cafeterias.
   "Today few children work up enough sweat in school to require a shower, and many are swapping the government-sanctioned ‘meat and two veggies’ lunch for candy bars, ice cream and soda from cafeteria vending machines" (The New York Times, Op. Ed., Feb. 1, 2003).
   How can you blame students for passing by soggy vegetables and over cooked meats? The same op ed piece selected sample menus from school lunches in five countries and revealed very different nutritional patterns. Of the five, the American menu proved to have the least nutritional value and was fat-heavy. Even Russia, which has a generally weighty diet, fared better by combining whole grains with healthy portions of fresh fruit.
   Changing eating habits at home, on the run and at school requires diligence and discipline. As parents, we may need the support of credible organizations such as Weight Watchers to set dietary standards. This program offers special classes for children and teen-agers at nominal cost and is usually covered by health insurance policies.
   But before staring any such diet program, remember to check with your physician.
   At first, it will probably be difficult to ignore our own cravings as well as those of a child who nags for a diet of fried and highly processed fast food. However, eating habits can be changed, and the rewards in the future will more than suffice the denial of the present.
   More than 30 years ago, I attended a lecture by an impassioned representative of a panel of nutrition professors that was investigating the quality of lunches given to children who attended Head Start Programs. He was very concerned about the meals that children were eating and the lack of nutritional value therein.
   However, he was pessimistic about adjustments since strong lobbies that secured contracts with the Department of Agriculture made too much money from the lucrative student lunch programs.
   The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. The results of the investigation were that at most Head Start programs, children were given food high in fat and of questionable nutritional content. The exception was in the south, where meals were being cooked on site using local in-season produce. The children who attended these programs had much more nourishing meals and enjoyed them. Leftovers were used for compost or in another meal as opposed to being tossed in the trash.
   Some federally funded programs receive their grants contingent on the amount of meals they serve. I saw the results of this first hand when working for New York University, training teachers in several federally funded Head Start after-school programs. These children came to school early for breakfast, then had lunch with their classmates. After school they were served another hot lunch followed by a snack two hours later.
   Many children already were fighting weight problems. The assumption seemed to be poor children, most of whom were from minority backgrounds, would go hungry if the Head Start program did not provide meals.
   When I inquired as to whether the food could be packed up and taken home, I was told that, "No, it had to be eaten on site or thrown out because the school could not take responsibility for what happened once the meals left its premises."
   In recent years, school districts have installed vending machines and contracted with fast food companies, thinking children would be happier having the same kind of food inside school they did elsewhere. Well, it seems they were quite right in their thinking; the cafeteria lines have dissipated, and students run to the machines, purchasing soft drinks and other fat laden treats.
   Faced with mounting criticism, some districts have decided enough is enough and will no longer sell soda to students.
   However, making any real change would entail working through the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the Department of Agriculture that has responsibility for student lunch programs.
   Oh, it can be so different! My daughter attended a day care center near International House at Columbia University where the woman in charge of meals was from Brazil. The parents were dedicated to providing their children with healthy food that also honored the different cultures represented at the school. The administration and teachers were amenable.
   Learning about the culture of food became an integral part of the curriculum. Parents were encouraged to share recipes from their homeland that enriched the entire experience for the children. The little pre-school students often helped to prepare the lunches, and the menus were printed in English and the language of the meal they were preparing.
   Right in our midst, Solebury School provides wonderful meals for its students and staff. Steve and Ingrid Ackerman prepare fabulously healthy and creative meals, including an abundance of fresh food and daily salad bar. All those who believe institutional food cannot be nutritious need only pay a visit to their kitchen.
   Grassroots efforts are necessary to turn around this health crisis. One suggestion is to charge a tax on all non-nutritious foods. I don’t think this will be implemented, however, it is an interesting concept.
   Another suggestion is fast food chains cut out the super-size portions and scales back the large size chairs they put in to accommodate America’s girth.
   However, it is unlikely big business will become so benevolent. Thus, we the people must rely on our own initiative and take the reins towards achieving a healthy and streamlined future.