October 20, 2013

Editorial: Children need time to adjust


---- — Kids who grow up on white bread, frequent fast-food meals and plentiful sweets are not going to be thrilled by school lunches featuring whole wheat bread, salads and fruit.

And that is the crux of a problem that has some schools dropping the $11 billion National School Lunch Program.

It’s not a mass exodus, by any means, but some schools around the country have opted out of the money-injecting federal program because, they say, kids weren’t eating the new foods that it requires cafeterias to serve.

Officials in one such district, in Catlin, Ill., told the Associated Press that they saw a 10 to 12 percent drop in lunch purchases, amounting to $30,000, last year. Closer to us, the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake and Voorheesville school districts both reported losses. They say students complained about the healthier food choices and that fruit was being dumped without being touched.

The new U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines come in reaction to the childhood-obesity epidemic in the United States and other health concerns. The comfort-food lunches that were served in school cafeterias for years — think meatloaf with gravy, buttered corn, white rolls and frosted cake, for example — were loaded with calories, sodium and starches.

You can’t blame the schools. That was what families were eating at home, it was what the government food programs supplied, and it could be produced in mass quantities at a reasonable cost.

But it wasn’t doing kids’ bodies, hearts and minds much good. We all know that a better nutrient balance, less sugar and sodium, reasonable portions and less processed food are what people should be consuming.

It is healthier for adults and, in a way, even more important for children because they are learning eating habits that will determine their longevity — and America’s future health-care costs.

The kid who is growing up on fast-food burgers, frozen dinners, takeout pizza, supersize sodas and candy will become the adult with a lineup of health issues that you, the taxpayer, will be paying to address.

The government is, wisely though not with popular approval, forcing schools to serve more nutritious lunches. Fruits, vegetables, whole-grain foods and snacks like granola bars are being placed on trays.

The schools that are giving up the National School Lunch Program are taking a big financial risk because they are turning down federal reimbursements of around 30 cents for each full-price meal and $2.50 to $3 for each free and reduced-price lunch.

What is needed here is for the parents to buy in to the new emphasis on nutrition. If they can encourage their kids to eat these better foods at school and can stock their own cupboards at home with healthier choices, they will be doing everyone in their family a service.

Schools and health departments should continue trying to educate students and families about proper nutrition. And cafeteria workers need to make the new foods as appealing as possible.

Any change takes a while to accept, and we encourage all local school districts to give children enough time to adjust before closing the book on these smart new food requirements.