This past month, I attended my first school orientation with my daughter, who has since started kindergarten. I learned she gets 30 minutes for lunch, which includes walking from the kindergarten building to the cafeteria and then through the serving line. She has a weekly gym class for 30 minutes and two 15-minute recesses. The principal announced that seventh and eighth graders would no longer have recesses.
How can we be serious about nutrition if we’re giving children less than a half hour to eat their lunches? How can we be serious about fighting childhood obesity if students have physical education once a week and never get the chance to burn off steam, let alone any calories?
I asked a dozen foodservice directors how much time their districts allotted for lunch and physical education and the answers were quite similar: Students at a district in Virginia get 30 minutes—bell to bell—for lunch. In the elementary school there, the director says they average serving four kids per minute and class sizes are more than 20. Junior high kids at a district in Ohio get 30 minutes, don’t have recess and take one semester of physical education. At a district in New York, kids get 20 minutes for lunch. The answers about nutrition education varied—from it being part of PE or health to special nutrition classes with BMI testing to almost nothing other than the foodservice department’s efforts during lunch.
I’m not writing any of this to excuse directors from the latest requirements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, but I can see why they might feel alone in this fight.
If childhood obesity is important—and the numbers are staggering—there must be a unified effort that includes not just healthy food, but time to eat it. It must include nutrition education, fitness and time for kids to run around and play to get away from their classes, computers, iPads and cell phones.
Childhood obesity rates have tripled in the past 30 years and one in three children is overweight or obese. One in three born in 2000 or later will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lives, according to the Let’s Move website. Lifestyles today are far different than 30 years ago. Kids, ages 8-18, spend 7.5 hours a day using entertainment media (TV, computers, video games, cell phones, etc.). Are we helping their sedentary lifestyles by making them sit at a desk for seven consecutive hours?
It’s not enough just to get kids eating vegetables—we need to teach them why the fiber and potassium found in broccoli can help prevent diabetes and high blood pressure and why the sodium and fat in fast food can lead to those problems. Even Ann Cooper, the Renegade Lunch Lady and a huge supporter of HHFKA, says education is a critical component in this battle and that all school nutrition departments need more resources, especially those struggling to meet the requirements.
And it’s not just the school’s responsibility. I’m going to do a better job educating my daughter at home. I’m going to push her school to do more and help them fight to get the resources and community support they need. I’ve already asked about volunteering during lunch.