It’s time to rethink school nutrition

A recent article in the Des Moines Register caught my attention. Of course, seeing how it occupied over half of the front page by itself and then continued on a full page inside the paper, it was probably supposed to do that. The pictures on the front contrasted "healthy" food and drink vending machines with "junk food" ones, then explained how Iowa is "leading the pack" by passing laws restricting the latter in all schools, with national legislation expected to come soon following suit. Nothing new-I don’t ever remember seeing non-diet soda or real candy bars in a vending machine of a school I’ve attended. But as I flipped to the inside page, the story began to change. As the writer reported how every student he interviewed at Lincoln High School didn’t like the new school foods and how so many of them instead went over to the local Kum-N-Go for a nice lunch of Honey Buns and Mountain Dew, I began to feel a little better represented, seeing how the last Register school food article included middle school kids screaming "I FREAKIN’ LOVE BROCCOLI!!" and smiling like Miley Cyrus in the pictures. However, in the story, Senator Tom Harkin presented a "solution" to the convenience-store lunch: Eliminate open campus for all high school students. I’ve accepted that schools are never going to have Coke and Snickers in their vending machines again. Parents forget that it’s their responsibility to raise healthy children and instead lobby school boards to make the one meal that kids eat at school a day as healthy, nutritious, and (to the kids) revolting as possible, then leave the PTA meeting to hit up Hy-Vee for some Fruit Roll-Ups, S’mores Pop Tarts, and Peanut Butter Chocolate Cap’n Crunch cereal. That doesn’t bother me anymore. But when our democratically elected senators advocate keeping all 1500 Ames High students trapped inside the building for seven hours a day with no possibility of running home to feed the dog, grab some Jimmy John’s, or just chill in their basement, then it gets personal. Eliminating open campus will not make our supposedly 100% obese population of students suddenly all find the motivation to exercise an hour a day, go vegan, and never look at a Twix bar again. That’s ridiculous. If a child is under 18, it is the responsibility of the parents, as their legal guardians, to instill healthy habits, and if the student is 18, they have the freedom of the age of majority to do and eat whatever the hell they want (within legal boundaries, of course). All that a school does by replacing Pepsi with Grab ‘N’ Go Organic, Pesticide-Free Milk is produce disgruntled students that feel oppressed, praise from that singular sweatsuit-clad stay-at-home mom with a dietetics degree and a freezer loaded with Healthy Choice meals, and lost revenue from the vending machines when the students instead just waste the gas to go to Swift Stop after class to get that damn Pepsi. Nothing will change in high schoolers’ diets for the better if schools cut open campus policies under the dictation of Congress. They’ll still eat poorly, maybe even worse-a full meal at Jimmy John’s or Fazoli’s is better than some trail mix and an Aquafina from the vending machines. (Also, if we’re going to be oppressed at the machine, don’t make it so painful to our wallets. $1.25 for a 16-ounce Vitamin Water? Really?) And, after school, kids will still go to the convenience stores, the fast food joints and the Wal-Mart candy aisles, and nothing will improve. This is clearly not the way that our educational authorities-principals, school boards, state legislatures, national legislatures-should go about making us healthier. How should they go about making us healthier? Oh, wow, educational authorities! Thanks so much for actually inquiring of the very subjects whose lives you are increasingly trying to dictate! Four and a half gold stars for you. The way I see it, exercise is more important than specific dietary elements. Even if kids eat two Butterfingers and drink a bottle of Dr Pepper every day, they can still be even more physically fit than the majority of students simply by being in a sport and being active. Encouraging physical activity-increasing the funding for P.E. to buy cool new equipment, maybe not cutting the Athletic Department’s budget by 30 percent…you know, the usual-will create lifelong active habits that will, in the long run, prove much more beneficial to today’s kids than simply removing Coke from our vending machines and cutting open campus. Therefore, I believe that a comprehensive K-12 education on the importance of healthy lifestyles, coupled with gradual exposure to "junk" foods, is essential to raising smart, healthy students. (You would never keep a teenager from driving until they’re 16 and then just give them a car and say, "Make the right choice, honey." Would you?) Here’s how: Starting in elementary school, we can teach kids the value of a healthy Body Mass Index, the benefits of not pigging out on Lucky Charms every morning. We can introduce them to the joys of playing organized sports or just riding their bikes around the neighborhood. Their lunches can have actual vegetables and help instill the values of nutrition. Bring in pizza once a month-explain to the kids that treats are meant to be enjoyed sparingly. Get them started off right. In middle and high school, we can begin to expose them to the choices that they’ll face in adulthood. Maybe increase school lunch revenue and interest by offering desserts in the cafeteria, but at a much lower price if the kids buy a full, nutritious meal with it than if they just buy it alone. And that’s just the beginning. We need to make sure the kids understand that eating right is only one part of several needed to be in good health. Encourage sports and other physical activities. Hiking trips. Alternate P.E. classes. We need to show kids, parents, and the community the importance of the full package when it comes to being healthy. Education, not repression, is key. And for education, we’re going to need some stay-at-home moms with dietetics degrees and time on their hands. Any volunteers?