One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
> 5/3/2007 11:38:18 AM

We spent some time yesterday patting West Virginia on the back for their efforts to revamp and revitalize gym class in hopes of getting kids interested in physical fitness. Today however, West Virginia is at the center of another story about battling childhood obesity, and this one illustrates the fact that while the state may be on the right track in some regards, in other areas they have a long way to go.

As reported today by the AP, West Virginia is one of many places where school district administrators are sneaking "healthy" junk food onto the menu in cafeterias to surreptitiously get their students to eat better. In this way hamburgers have become soy burgers, mystery meat has become mystery processed vegetable patty, and pizza has gotten a face-lift with low-fat cheese and whole grain bread.

Without a doubt, the educators' and administrators' hearts are in the right place. They want to do right by the children of West Virginia, and they continue to take steps to change the state's abysmal rank in nationwide obesity surveys. Unfortunately, this is a case of a great effort being spoiled by a rotten idea. Sure, the nutritionally enhanced food stuffs are probably better than those junk foods without the same enhancements, but at the very bottom level, they are still junk foods. Super Donuts, which are served for breakfast at schools not just in West Virginia but also around the nation, have been fortified with 5 grams of protein and 14 vitamins and minerals, at the end of the day, though, it doesn't matter if the donuts that students eat are "super" or not. When schools serve donuts for breakfast, it sends the message that donuts are an acceptable breakfast option. The same can be said of the "healthy" pizzas, hamburgers and faux junk food that is being served: the food itself might be an improvement over previous options, but it is still junk food, and the habit of eating pizza for lunch that students learn now will stay with them until adulthood, where they pizza they eat will most likely not be of the healthy variety.

Experts who spoke with the AP, agreed that these new options are not the best strategy:

“The problem is we can’t always have our cake and eat it, too,” said Dr. Stephen Daniels, a pediatric cardiologist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

He worries that children who grow up eating faux fast foods may have trouble making good food choices as adults.

“There are ways to prepare healthy foods to make them more palatable, but I’m not sure we need to hide them in a doughnut or a hot dog,” he said.

Halting the obesity problem in places like West Virginia isn't going to be as easy as putting some multi-vitamins in the water, or replacing cheeseburgers with veggie burgers. Schools need to focus on making palpable changes in students' eating habits, on teaching them what healthy nutrition and diet is, and then setting the correct example by serving more whole foods instead of heavily processed junk, be it nutritionally enhanced or not. Instead of offering students donuts and pancakes on a stick for breakfast, push oatmeal and fruit. Some schools now have salad bars in the lunchroom, which is a nice step, but they are little good if the dressings offered are loaded with fats and calories. As with fitness, instilling proper nutrition and healthy eating should be the responsibility of parents, but to ignore the role that schools can play in improving children's health would be unacceptable. It appears that in many school districts around the country, the heart is willing, but the brain may still be searching for the right answer.

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