By NEMS Daily Journal
Mississippi may not be ahead of the nation on many things, but its public schools have a head start on other states in combating childhood obesity.
Our state’s status as a leader in making school food more healthy is as it should be. We’re the nation’s fattest state, and that includes an unacceptably high level of obesity among schoolchildren.
Schools can hardly solve the problem on their own, but they can help offset the poor nutritional choices made by or for children elsewhere.
That was the thinking when Mississippi recently implemented new standards for school meals that aim at increasing the fruits, vegetables and whole grains offered and reducing calories and fat not only in the cafeteria but in vending machines as well.
Now comes a new federal law – the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act – that will require schools across the nation to do many of the same things, and this time Mississippi is ahead of the curve. Under the law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will set national nutrition standards for schools.
Sodium reduction will be the major additional change the state faces with the new federal law. Free water will also be a new requirement.
The federal law also is likely to raise the number of children eligible for reduced-price lunches and will provide financial assistance to school districts for that purpose. It also could mean higher prices for lunches since healthy food isn’t as cheap as a lot of high-fat, high-calorie fare.
It’s true that most children would prefer the kind of food they may be most accustomed to eating at home or at fast food restaurants, but foods like pizza and french fries fed to schoolchildren on a regular basis only encourage the habits that are contributing to the obesity epidemic. Such foods won’t be eliminated from schools, they’ll just appear less frequently and as a smaller percentage of the total offering.
These standards for school food are entirely appropriate because of the public health ramifications of the effects of poor eating habits. This is not about the government policing what children eat anywhere else, but about what they get when they eat in publicly funded schools. In that environment, there is a policy imperative not to contribute to individual health problems or to the public’s financial burden in dealing with the chronic illnesses associated with obesity.
Mississippi policymakers recognized this by helping lead the way to more healthy eating at school. It was necessary to deal with a major state problem, and while the schools can’t do it alone, they have to be a major front in the fight against childhood obesity.