Nutrition only one part of larger childhood obesity problem
by Marie Nesmith
Aug 29, 2010 | 1750 views | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The first group of students eat lunch in the Cartersville Elementary School cafeteria Thursday. Ninety percent of the school’s students participate in the nutrition program, which offers breakfast and lunch. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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To obtain their recommended daily allowance of two cups of fruit, elementary school students can consume a half cup of fruit juice, one small apple and a half cup of sliced fruit. Since the portions often are challenging to visualize, Cartersville Elementary School has broken them down into images the students can relate to -- a juice box, baseball and a small computer mouse, respectively.

Posted on a wall graphic in the school cafeteria, the portion control tips are an example of several tools used by the nutrition programs at the Cartersville and Bartow County school systems to spur healthy nutrition. Along with implementing a wider selection of healthier foods, the design of their cafeterias and menus are geared toward helping students sustain a healthy diet once the school day ends.

"We try to have a lot of whole grains, a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, a lot of variety," said Tracey Morris, school nutrition director for Cartersville Schools. "We have low-fat products, low-sugar products. We try to do everything we can but in Georgia what is so hard is that it is not in the curriculum at all. Nutrition is not mentioned in the curriculum, and I just feel like it's a life skill that children need.

"That's why we try to do everything we can to show a nutritional message. Even the design of our primary school and the design of our elementary school is based around the USDA pyramid. But I'm just not sure kids are getting it. ... I just think it's something that should be taught every single year because it's something that you need to be reminded of. We all deal with weight issues but [correct portion sizes] never dawned on me until I was an adult because no one teaches that."

Morris' concern -- if students do not receive or retain nutritional knowledge they can apply throughout their lives, they could be at greater risk to develop future health problems -- is not unfounded.

Failing to follow a healthy diet is one aspect that many state and federal programs have attributed to the growing issue of childhood obesity. In February, First Lady Michelle Obama kicked off Let's Move! to find a solution to childhood obesity within a generation, with her campaign reporting one in three U.S. children is overweight or obese.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website, www.cdc.gov, the preferred tool to determine a child's weight status is body mass index, "a measure of weight in relation to height ... For children and adolescents -- aged 2 to 19 years -- the BMI value is plotted on the CDC growth charts to determine the corresponding BMI-for-age percentile. Overweight is defined as a BMI at or above the 85th percentile and lower than the 95th percentile. Obesity is defined as a BMI at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex." Some health problems related to childhood obesity include heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea and asthma.

Since the recent statistics also apply to Georgia, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle is launching the Healthy Kids Challenge as President Barack Obama's administration has formed a task force and the Let's Move! campaign is under way to curb the problem. The state and federal initiatives are all aimed at combating the issue of childhood obesity through a multifaceted approach, centering on physical activity, education, nutrition and parental involvement.

Highly concerned with the recent statistics, Morris and Karen Mathis, Bartow County Schools' director of school nutrition, also agree that nutrition, especially meals provided at school, is only one piece of a larger puzzle. A lack of physical activity also is a key component, they said, pointing out an increase of students participating in "screen time" activities, or time spent playing video games, watching television or working on a computer.

"Students are in school 177 days per year and -- this is the part that people don't actually realize until they do the math but -- if they eat lunch every day in school ... that's 1,095 total meals in a year," Mathis said. "Well if 177 of those are eaten at school, that's only 16 percent of a child's meals. So that's what I mean when I say it's a multifaceted problem and it's a lot bigger than what schools can do.

"While I understand a lot of people think of us as a prime focus and that's fine but if we focus only on schools we're not going to touch this problem," she said, adding 96 percent of Bartow County's student body participated in the school nutrition program last year -- breakfast, lunch and afternoon snacks at some elementary schools -- feeding about 14,038 daily in all 20 schools combined. "It's what are your kids eating 84 percent of the rest of the time? I think the parents have to [get involved]. I'm a parent. I have a 13-year-old son. His health is my responsibility. I think it's great that there's some things in school that help me," she said, referring to Bartow County School System's MealPayPlus.com, a website that enables parents to monitor what their children are eating in the school cafeteria.

Trying to do their part, both nutrition programs are providing a wide variety of healthy options, with the days of having one lunch line with one entrée item being history. In addition to fresh fruit and vegetables, today's students have numerous entree and side item choices.

"We have fresh fruits and vegetables every day in every school," Morris said, noting Cartersville Schools' nutrition program, consisting of breakfast, lunch and a primary school snack, serves about 4,000 students per day. "To me when you look at our program in comparison to other programs, it's amazing the variety that we have with choices. But I think the component we're missing is that kids don't understand the correct choices to make. But we have so many fresh fruits and vegetables. Our lines are beautiful.

"In the primary school, we have three choices a day, the elementary school we have six to eight, the middle school we have maybe 10 and the high school we have 15 choices a day. It's not like it was when we were in school."

Morris said the present-day offerings also are drastically different than the items served when she first entered the food service business 27 years ago.

"We had a dessert every day," Morris said. "A dessert went with the menu every day. Now we have a cookie maybe twice a month. The commodities that we received -- these are our products from USDA -- was butter, butter, butter, butter. Now we don't get butter at all anymore.

"So a lot of the offerings have changed. There's a lot of emphasis right now on fresh fruits and vegetables. ... the thing you have to remember is it's just a balancing game [with] nutrition. If it goes in the garbage can, it doesn't do anybody any good. So it's a fine line that you have to play in between providing nutrition but it has to taste good."

By using low fat or more nutritional ingredients like whole grain breads, the food service employees also are finding a way to put a healthy spin on foods often regarded as guilty pleasures.

"What we try to do here in Bartow County is we take kid-friendly favorites and try to make them healthier," Mathis said. "So a couple of examples of that are pizza and calzones are made with low-fat cheese, and macaroni and cheese is also reduced fat. The premise that I've always operated under is it's not nutrition if kids won't eat it. So I can put all this wonderful diet, healthy food out there and if they won't take it I've accomplished absolutely nothing.

"So what we try to do is put it in a form that they're familiar with and that they're comfortable with and take some of their age-old favorites and make them healthier. So those are just a couple of examples of what we do and while our school menus use wording like french fries, pizza and chicken nuggets, most people don't realize that those items are baked, not fried, and made with low fat or lean ingredients and served with vegetables, fruit and other options that make each meal balanced and nutritious."