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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Healthy food in D.C. schools: still a work in progress

A large part of the DC SCORES program is helping our poet-athletes lead healthier lives by exercising and eating well. And while we provide students the exercise component through soccer practices and games, it's much more difficult to tell a 9-year-old to eat well.

After all, how many kids get to choose what they're served?

It's up to the adults in kids' lives — the parents, of course, but also those in charge of their school lunches — to feed them nutritious meals. At DC SCORES, we try to teach healthy eating habits, but there's only so much we can do. When a kid's hungry, he or she has to eat whatever is served.

Unfortunately, as a column in this weekend's Washington Post explained, food served in the District's school cafeterias is not very nutritious. The author, Ed Bruske, has a child who attends H.D. Cooke, one of the 23 public and public charter schools DC SCORES has programming in, and he spent time in January observing first-hand the cooking, serving and eating habits at the elementary school.

Bruske wrote about how he was excited to see the "fresh cooked" food Chartwells, the company contracted by the District to provide meals in D.C.'s schools, had switched to serving instead of prepackaged food. Instead, he was vastly disappointed when he saw huge bags of "extruded meat" and other processed food dumped into a steamer.

As he summed up, "Most meals are made from processed foods that have been precooked and frozen." And just as sadly, the vegetables served at H.D. Cooke were so unappealing to students — Bruske described the broccoli as "limp and drab" — that when asked by servers, "Do you want vegetables?" the common reply was, "No! No! No! No!."

Instead, students living in a city desingated as having one of the highest levels of childhood obesity, gorged themselves on sugar. Highly popular flavored milk, which has the same amount of sugar as Classic Coke; Pop-Tarts; sugar-heavy cereals such as chocolate-flavored Mini-Wheats; and "sugar-glazed cookies called Crunchmania Cinnamon Buns" were among the extremely unhealthy meals Bruske observed students eating at Cooke.

Granted, it's not easy to serve large numbers of children healthy food. Especially in this economy, budgets are tight. But for many of these kids, what they eat at school makes up their best meal(s) of the day.

As we noted in an earlier blog post, Michelle Obama is making an admirable — and highly difficult — push against childhood obesity and what foods are served America's children through her "Let's Move" campaign. One of her big initiatives is to work with kids in school gardens to foster an appreciation for fresh vegetables.

It's a great idea, and as Bruske notes, he knows from personal experience that it works. "Kids will gladly eat lots of healthful foods, including vegetables, given a chance to help in the preparation," Bruske wrote.

And at DC SCORES, our spring curriculum based around service-learning projects encourages students to take a look around their communities and schools and put together a project such as creating school gardens to better the environment in which they learn every day.

But when it comes to living healthier lives, elementary and middle school students need positive direction from those who decide what foods they're served. Sure, all kids love a tasty, sugar-filled snack. We all know that. But if it's not balanced with a healthy dose of vegetables and fruit and actual fresh-cooked meals, then the first lady's campaign and DC SCORES' mission, among others, to fight childhood obesity is that much more difficult.

The Healthy Schools Act is pending before the D.C. Council and calls for increased servings of vegetables and "minimally processed local produce 'whenever possible,' as well as using school gardens to teach children the benefits of fresh produce."

The act is a step in the right direction, and the attention the first lady is paying the issue certainly won't hurt. Because as Bruske's experience so clearly illustrated, there is a lot of work to do in improving the quality of food the District's children eat during the school day.

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