Districts Aim For Better Nutrition With Cautious Optimism
> 8/21/2006 2:19:21 PM

Blame for the current spate of health problems plaguing our nation'syoung people lies, in varying degrees, across the spectrum of baddietary habits. Many of these unfortunate health decisions occur athome, but school food programs have long failed to provide studentswith adequate nutrition. Millions of American kids eat two meals atschool every weekday, and nutritionists and administrators in someareas of the country believe the time has come for these schools tooffer healthy food, even at significantly higher costs.

A lengthy articlein last week's New York Times Magazine focuses on some of thosededicated to improving school nutrition; theirs is largely an uphillbattle. In one Florida district, South Beach Diet creator ArthurAgatston initiated a program called Healthier Options for Public Schoolchildren (HOPS),which purportedly improves student health with more nutritionaleducation, lunchroom offerings and programs allowing children to growtheir own fruits and vegetables. Because he is a dietary celebrity andmulti-millionaire with a line of packaged foods distributed by Kraft, Agatson's approachnecessitates careful examination. Though many report significant weightloss on the diet, which refrains from absolutes like "fat is bad" and"carbs are bad," some criticize the dramatic stages of the diet whichinclude a two week "withdrawal" period as well as its reliance on ofteninconvenient self-preparation.

Agatson, whose diet book continesto sell copies in the millions, clearly believes that he can improvethe dietary habits of most Americans. Four schools in Florida's Osceoladistrict attempted to implement his plan starting in 2004. Someexamples of their efforts include replacing white bread and tater totswith 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.

Manykids have simply been conditioned to enjoy very little outside thenarrow family of convenient "comfort foods" like hamburgers, pizza, andchicken nuggets. Even when these foods are unavailable and schoolspresent healthier alternatives, many kids simply bring food from homeor throw their meals away. In addition, the vast majority of schoollunchrooms do not cook their food-they only reheat it. Some schoolsrespond by attempting to create healthier versions of these fast foods(like ordering their chicken grilled rather than breaded), but suchmoves are costly and experts still debate their effectiveness.

Afterone year of the HOPS program, researchers noted little visibleimprovement in the health of the students involved, but new statisticslook more promising:

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

Researcherssay they need at least five more years to build up conclusive evidenceof the plan's success, and many educators and parents will watch theresults closely. Whatever their end conclusions may be, those involvedin the HOPS program have, at the very least, moved to focus attentionon the numerous flaws in America's cafeterias. There is no longer anydebate about the importance of improving our children's diets. We onlyneed to find more efficient ways to do that as quickly as possible.

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