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Week of Oct. 25, 2010: Healthy schools highlights

Psychology of the school lunch line

The Atlantic discusses the potential irony of National School Lunch Week.

“How do people celebrate National School Lunch week? If you asked around, you’d never hear of any parties or parades—all you’d hear are laughs. Even though over 30 million children are fed by the National School Lunch Program, school lunches are bullied daily by critics, activists, and celebrity chefs and blamed for contributing to childhood obesity. Unfortunately, the suggestions of these critics and of well-intentioned PTAs and school boards can often lead to policies that backfire with disastrous consequences.

One foodservice professional recently complained to us that as soon as the parents had successfully lobbied to ban “junk foods” from the lunchroom, their children stopped eating there. Instead of buying the school lunch with the occasional high-calorie snack, they skipped lunch, ate snacks from home, grabbed fast food from off-campus restaurants, or brought food from home that was often much less healthy. It is difficult to teach a high school student how to make healthy choices in the real world if only escarole and tofu on are on the school lunch menu.”

And, for a stunning visual of a lunch-line redesign, see this New York Times graphic. And here’s more information on behavioral economics and school nutrition from researchers at Cornell University.

“Don’t ban it, move it. This is one conclusion of a new Cornell University study. In one set of schools, sales of fruit increased by 100 percent when it was moved to a colorful bowl. Salad bar sales tripled when the cart was placed in front of cash registers.

These findings presented at the recent School Nutrition Association’s New York conference, underscore the easiest way to lunchroom choices is to make an apple more convenient, cool, and visible than a cookie. The conclusion of six different studies with over 11,000 middle and high school studies show that psychology and economics might be better outlawing tasty food.

Studies have shown:

  • Creating a speedy “healthy express” checkout line for students not buying calorie-dense foods like desserts and chips, doubled the sales of healthy sandwiches.
  • Moving the chocolate milk behind the plain milk led students to buy more plain milk.
  • Keeping ice cream in a freezer with a closed opaque top significantly reduced the amount of ice cream taken.
  • When cafeteria workers asked each child, “Do you want a salad?” salad sales increased by a third.

The Cornell Center is funded by the USDA and will be awarding research grants to determine additional “low-cost/no cost” changes that schools can make to improve what kids eat and can improve participation in the school lunch program.

Girls reaching puberty earlier

The Tennessean newspaper reports on a trend that has ramifications in school and in life for young girls.

“Little girls are hitting puberty earlier and earlier, and in increasing numbers. And since the physical changes are happening before the girls have the corresponding emotional maturity, the repercussions can be serious.

“What I see is the desire to hide it and keep it secret,” said Nashville psychotherapist Amanda Lucas. “Girls feel a sense of shame. Children will be teased about anything. If they are the only one or one of a small group, it makes them different, and they are going to try and hide that.”

But more parents are going to have to figure out how to handle their embarrassment, because the situation is becoming more common. Roughly 10 percent of white and 23 percent of African-American girls now start developing breasts by age 7, according to a study recently published in the medical journal Pediatrics. That’s compared to 5 percent of whites and 15 percent of African Americans in a similar study that was conducted in 1997.”

Feds consider limiting potatoes offered to kids

This Associated Press story addresses a push to purge the potato from school lunches and the outcry from potato farmers in Washington.

GLEED, Wash. (AP) — Potato growers are fighting back against efforts to ban or limit potatoes in federal child nutrition programs, arguing the tuber is loaded with potassium and vitamin C and shouldn’t be considered junk food.

One Washington man is so exasperated by the proposals that he’s in the midst of a 60-day, all potato diet to demonstrate that potatoes are nutritious.

“We’re just really concerned that this is a misconception to the public that potatoes aren’t healthy,” said Chris Voigt, head of the Washington Potato Commission. “The potato isn’t the scourge of the earth. It’s nutrition.”

Healthy food advocates said they’re not anti-potato, but they think children need a greater variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains to fight a tripling of child obesity rates in the past 30 years.

“The potato is the most common vegetable,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association. “My impression is that the goal is to increase the amounts of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. I don’t believe anyone is specifically attacking the potato.”

With that in mind, the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, recommended that the U.S. Department of Agriculture stop participants of the federal Women, Infants and Children program, known as WIC, from buying potatoes with federal dollars. The institute also called for the USDA-backed school lunch program to limit use of potatoes.

America’s healthiest schools

ABC News selects five schools battling childhood obesity and tells you what changes make a difference.

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