Yesterday, I started to discuss the role of schools in children’s diets. While we see some wonderful school-based programming such as teaching gardens that promote children’s health, is it up to the schools to direct children’s eating habits? I think getting kids to garden is a great idea, and possibly a way to get kids to eat higher-quality diets. But as schools continue to offer programs such as this, and as schools continue to provide a large percentage of children’s daily diets, how responsible should they really be for their students’ health outcomes and dietary habits?
More and more, I believe the responsibility for children’s health must fall in the hands of schools. In the right school district, a child now could potentially eat all meals at school… There’s the School Breakfast Program, the National School Lunch Program, snack programs like the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and the Afterschool Snack Program… and now some schools offer dinner too! On top of that, there may be snack bars, school stores, and vending machines available at school. If a child has so many opportunities to make eating decisions during the school day, the school environment has to find a way to provide guidance and to control what foods are offered.
On Tuesday, I lectured an introductory nutrition class about school interventions designed to increase fruit and vegetable consumption. We talked about some changes that could be made in the classroom and the cafeteria, and I was glad one of the students piped up, “But what about the parents? Are they getting involved?” Yes, the parents need to play a role in all of this, but if a child is going to spend so much time at school, the school may be an even more opportune place for learning and building healthy habits. I believe our food environment shapes the way we eat, and if the primary food environment is school and not home, it may simply make sense for the school to be increasingly more responsible for the way our children eat.
Whether or not you agree with my stance on this issue so far, at least I hope we can agree on this: let’s not give the responsibility to the food industry! Ludwig and Nestle argue in JAMA that the goals of industry – selling us more calories than we could ever eat, in order to sustain profits – is near-impossible to align with public health interests: “Advice to eat less often, eat foods in smaller portions, and avoid high-calorie foods of low-nutritional quality undermines the fundamental business model of many companies.”
In some cases, the cash-strapped schools may behave based on their financial needs rather than health interests just as the food industry must… so am I wrong to try to place a large amount of responsibility on schools?
While the school is not solely responsible for what ends up in kids’ bellies, I believe they become largely responsible for what, when, and how much most kids eat, and this makes it all the more important that we focus on the role this environment can play in shaping the health of kids. Realistically, both the family and school affect a child’s health, but which party do you think is more important in shaping kids’ diets?