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A Healthy Food Education - What Schools Should Be Doing

From the popular television show Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution" to the Fed Up with Lunch Blog (where a teacher in a public school documents her attempt to eat the rather unappetizing cafeteria food every single day), school lunches have been the subject of an impressive public relations campaign lately. The general public sits and bemoans the poor food choices our children, our very future, are being offered on a day-to-day basis. An outcry, nay, a battle cry for the availability of healthier food options has begun to increase in volume. Surely, undoubtedly, a change is coming.

And yet this Examiner believes that the cafeteria offerings are only part of the problem. And, in all honesty, the offerings of your friendly, neighborhood cafeteria workers are a lesser problem in a larger health issue.

By day, your Atlanta Healthy Food Examiner is an educator. Yes, I'm right there in the trenches, trying to form the minds of future leaders while hopefully maintaining some semblance of sanity. It's a difficult yet rewarding profession and while I could write ad nauseum about the ups and downs of teaching, this article is not about education.

This article is about how we as a society should not only nourish the minds of tomorrow but also the bodies that house those minds.

My school, along with many others, does actually offer some healthy meal choices. Right next to pizza, we have a salad bar. Located within arm's reach of the French fries is the daily soup offering. Our snack counter has a shelf of candy bars and a shelf of carrot sticks, apple slices, and trail mix. In other words, it's far from being as bad as the worst we see on television.

The problem really lies in the choices our young people are making.

Other than the occasional dieting girl or wrestler attempting to cut weight (another two issues I could expound upon for days), the young people I teach simply do not make healthful choices. They choose the pizza, the fries, the candy bars, and then they finish it all off with an almost comically enormous soda. The idea of a well-balanced meal seems foreign to most of them. And while the cafeteria could probably eliminate this issue by simply cutting out the less healthy options, they would lose too much business. Many of the students would just stop buying their food and it doesn't take an economist to figure out the simple supply and demand model working in your school's cafeteria.

So, what to do?

In clichéd terms, it will take a village. We must all work together to cultivate a healthy mindset for our young people. From healthy meals at home, to healthy options being offered in fast food restaurants, to general nutrition education, to setting good examples - it must all come together in a perfect storm.

It sounds so easy on paper. But if it were that easy, I wouldn't be writing this article.

As a teacher without any children of my own, I do not feel qualified to comment on what should be happening at home. After all, what do I know? My only piece of advice to parents out there is to lead by example. When you make healthy meals, when you fit in some exercise, when you talk to your children about these choices, you are doing much more through demonstration than you ever could through words.

Now, back in my domain, what can schools do to help our children reach for the apple and not the deep fried potato?

The answer, my friends, is knowledge. We must educate our young people beyond the one chapter in Health class about proper nutrition. Our young people are really quite bright and when given the information, I believe they would make better, more healthful choices. A healthy lifestyle class that incorporates some physical activity and nutrition education should be required at all education levels year round. Young people should be able to run a mile without gasping for breath and identify various vegetables and fruits in their natural states. At more advanced levels, young people could train for a fitness event, a scaled down triathlon and something like a mini Olympics perhaps where the entire school could be involved, and put their food knowledge into practice by making meal plans. These lessons are just as valuable as reading, writing, and arithmetic because without the body to sustain the mind, the mind is useless.

Just imagine the possibilities. If the healthy lifestyle class catches on, maybe it could be offered in the evenings or on weekends so parents could participate. Students could share their knowledge with their families. They will understand how to make informed choices about their food and know that treats should be consumed in moderation, not as the bulk of their diet. The ripple effect is awe-inspiring.

I, for one, will be discussing this possibility with my fellow educators. I will write to local superintendents. I will hope that if I scream loud enough, someone will hear me.

Won't you join me in crying out for change?

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