Who took my lunch, Mrs. Obama?

For students who love pizza, fries and hamburgers, being told to eat salads, whole grains and less sugar, can be shocking. To some it might even seem disastrous! Enough to make a few want to film a complaint video (at the off chance that it becomes viral and grabs media attention).

Well, that’s exactly what happened to a group of students whose school was forced to phase out fat, sugar and sodium rich meals for more healthy options. It was required by the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

If you read the New York Times article by Nicholas Confessore, you’ll be surprised at how political this issue is. And when you start reading some of the historic procedures that created today’s diet problems, your jaw will swing open. Decisions made by Jimmy Carter to cut school-lunch subsidies, and Ronald Reagan’s decision to cut them even further, while also making some condiments passable for vegetables, paved a way for disaster.

And while these rules didn’t last long, the cuts and changes created a pocket of opportunity for big companies, who eagerly jumped at the offer to make more money. Fact is: “most districts required food service to earn enough revenue to cover expenses, including labor.” With less money to spend, and more mouths to feed, school officials and lunch ladies turned to cheaper calories. Pretty soon, schools in USA were making deals with McDonal’s, Chick-fil-A, and other fast food giants to start selling fast food meals directly to kids.

Legal Drugs

Sugar triggers a similar dopamine “reward” response in the brain as cocaine. (Photos: Radius-TWC)
Sugar triggers a similar dopamine “reward” response in the brain as cocaine. (Photos: Radius-TWC)

After years of eating fried, salty and sugar filled foods, cutting down this intake can give the body and the mind a shock, a withdrawal. (Sugar and cocaine light up similar parts of the brain.) But that’s not all. Replacing the menu from cheap calories, to more fresh and healthy ones, increases budget expenses. Whether or not the law was thoroughly discussed, it created a mess.

Students and many lunch ladies were not happy with new ‘healthy’ options. But the government, who sees the devastating effects fast food diets have on people, were surprised by the wave of criticism. Most of this criticism, unfairly, was geared at Michelle Obama. First Lady, mother of two and an intelligent woman, who wanted to clean up the culinary mess previous presidents left in school kitchens.

Sadly, there was one thing that corporations got right, that Mrs. Obama didn’t – they knew how to make us addicted. And have poured millions of dollars into research and advertisement to make sure we buy and crave their unhealthy products.

The Human Factor

Summer_kids_eat_lunch_saynotofoodwaste_healthy_food_students_-_Flickr_-_USDAgovSince fat, sugar and salt are difficult to find in nature, big corporations began piling ingredient like substances into our food to make them irresistible and cheap to produce. The result, we consume more sugar and salt than ever imagined. This is ruining our health! Things are so bad that a new military report said Americans are too fat to fight for their country.

But, we can use our humans nature to benefit us. People are social creatures, we mimic the behavior of people we like. We also shift our behaviors to adapt to larger groups. It means that, while new changes in school lunches have rubbed big corporations, lunch ladies and students the wrong way, with time, we can reap benefits from this law.

Recommendations

There are four recommendations I want to suggest to governments and schools faced with above mentioned dilemmas.

1. Use Celebrity Endorsements

Get famous individuals, local heroes or young actors to talk about healthy eating. It will encourage school kids to approach ‘healthy options’ with a more positive outlook if the people they look up to tell them it’s not a bad choice. When acknowledging mass advertisement campaigns kids see on TV and around shopping malls, encouraging them to grab a sugary and processed meal, we quickly realize that ‘healthy’ is up against a big, fat giant, and will need more than truth and facts to win.

2. Gather student input

No individual likes to be told what to do. It’s especially true of students who in the midst of identity crisis and power rebellions hate to see schools involved in their diet choices. Imagine how it would feel to have government tell you what you can or can’t eat. Instead of giving top-down instructions, it is best to give students back their voices and hear their feedback about these changes. Through surveys and interviews, we can learn what they hate the most, what they might like and where we can find a middle ground with food. Hearing their views will open up a dialogue, enriching the decision making process. This is part of the Collective Impact philosophy, which highlights that long-lasting change occur when all stakeholders have a say.

3. Make healthy fun!

School Breakfast and School Lunch at Washington-Lee High School Arlington, Virginia, saynotofoodwaste, eat healthy, sustainable, happyFood really impacts our behavior. Seeing a colorful plate of greens and veggies energizes the body. Truth is, we are visual creatures. We eat with our eyes first and assess quality long before we bite into something. A valuable thing to consider when serving food is the plate presentation. Adding color, shape and volume to served food will make students more eager to consume what’s given. Every lunch can become an adventure and a discovery of something new for the palate.

4. Educate students about food

Many people fear what they don’t know. Sadly, many parents stopped cooking at home due to time constraints. This means children are losing their knowledge about food. Without shopping for food, many don’t learn vegetables names, or how they need to be prepared and stored. They also don’t know what they taste like, unless served as processed food. It’s time to change the diets and the minds of youth, by expanding their knowledge of produce. Humans love to learn and share information. Where better to share this wealth of knowledge than at school cafeterias, with everyone gathered for a meal?

I look forward to seeing more thoughts and feedback from students, government officials and parents on this issue.

Healthy eating to all!
Hokuma

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