America's battle against childhood obesity is fought on many fronts. The nation is winning on some, but surrendering on another.
Good news has come in a new survey of more than 800 school districts, which shows big increases in bans and restrictions on the sale of junk food and soda. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 44 percent of districts banned junk food from vending machines last year; in 2006, only 30 percent of districts had such bans.
The CDC survey also showed a drop in the influence soft-drink companies have in schools — in the amount of income schools get from sales of soft drinks, advertising allowed on school grounds, and donations of equipment and other products they accept. Those factors mean less exposure of children to the lure of sugary drinks, which contribute to weight gain.
The bad news comes from some of the country’s school cafeterias, where officials are giving up too easily in the effort to alter children’s eating habits to help keep them at a healthy weight.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture changed guidelines for meals offered under the $11 billion National School Lunch Program. More whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables became a regular part of the meals, for which districts get reimbursements and price breaks. It was no surprise that some students didn’t like the change.
The School Nutrition Association reports that 1 percent of 521 district nutrition directors it surveyed said they plan to drop out of the school lunch program, and an additional 3 percent are considering that option. That’s the wrong choice.
All the more troubling is the explanation offered by some schools — that their cafeterias are losing too much money because children don’t like the healthier options. Would these schools offer deep-fried Twinkies if they could make a profit from fat-laden lunches?
Last month, the CDC reported the first reversal of a decades-long trend of rising obesity rates among children. Most recently, those rates fell in 19 states, including Michigan, and held steady in 21 others, including Ohio. Efforts to contribute to that improvement should be nurtured, not abandoned.
It takes a long time to change dietary habits. Schools must keep at it, for the long-term good of their students.