Districts Aim For Better Nutrition With Cautious Optimism
> 8/21/2006 1:13:18 PM

Blame for the current spate of health problems plaguing our nation's young people lies, in varying degrees, across the spectrum of bad dietary habits. Many of these unfortunate health decisions occur at home, but school food programs have long failed to provide students with adequate nutrition. Millions of American kids eat two meals at school every weekday, and nutritionists and administrators in some areas of the country believe the time has come for these schools to offer healthy food, even at significantly higher costs.

A lengthy article in last week's New York Times Magazine focuses on some of those dedicated to improving school nutrition; theirs is largely an uphill battle. In one Florida district, South Beach Diet creator Arthur Agatston initiated a program called Healthier Options for Public Schoolchildren (HOPS), which purportedly improves student health with more nutritional education, lunchroom offerings and programs allowing children to grow their own fruits and vegetables. Because he is a dietary celebrity and multi-millionaire with a line of packaged foods distributed by Kraft, Agatson's approach necessitates careful examination. Though many report significant weight loss on the diet, which refrains from absolutes like "fat is bad" and "carbs are bad," some criticize the dramatic stages of the diet which include a two week "withdrawal" period as well as its reliance on often inconvenient self-preparation.

Agatson, whose diet book contines to sell copies in the millions, clearly believes that he can improve the dietary habits of most Americans. Four schools in Florida's Osceola district attempted to implement his plan starting in 2004. Some examples of their efforts include replacing white bread and tater tots with whole wheat and sweet potatoes. These alternatives, unfortunately, are also considerably more expensive, and Agatson used money from his research foundation to make up for some of the differences.

Many kids have simply been conditioned to enjoy very little outside the narrow family of convenient "comfort foods" like hamburgers, pizza, and chicken nuggets. Even when these foods are unavailable and schools present healthier alternatives, many kids simply bring food from home or throw their meals away. In addition, the vast majority of school lunchrooms do not cook their food-they only reheat it. Some schools respond by attempting to create healthier versions of these fast foods (like ordering their chicken grilled rather than breaded), but such moves are costly and experts still debate their effectiveness.

After one year of the HOPS program, researchers noted little visible improvement in the health of the students involved, but new statistics look more promising:

The overweight rate in the HOPS schools in fact declined during the 2005-6 school year: specifically, 23 of the 486 children who had been characterized as overweight when school began were characterized as merely “at risk” or “normal” when school ended. In the control schools, by contrast, there was no decline and three children actually gained enough weight that they were added to the overweight category.

Researchers say they need at least five more years to build up conclusive evidence of the plan's success, and many educators and parents will watch the results closely. Whatever their end conclusions may be, those involved in the HOPS program have, at the very least, moved to focus attention on the numerous flaws in America's cafeterias. There is no longer any debate about the importance of improving our children's diets. We only need to find more efficient ways to do that as quickly as possible. 

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