When most school kitchens have only deep fryers, microwaves, and displays for candy and junk food at the checkout counters, how can children stay healthy or learn? When the food served is as addictive as heroin or cocaine, who is accountable?
General Jack Keane, former Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, shared with me that 70 percent of applicants for the military are unfit to serve and can’t pass standardized qualifying tests for military service. The school lunch program was started in 1946 because military recruits were too thin to serve in the military; now, in part because of our school lunch program, our children are too fat and academically challenged to serve.
Kids who skip breakfast, eat sugar-laden and additive-laced foods, and get 10 to 15 percent of their calories from liquid sugar drinks like sodas and “sports” drinks are more likely to gain weight and develop diabetes, heart disease and stroke in adolescence. They also can’t pay attention, are less alert, can’t solve problems nor do the math, have a myriad of learning deficits, and are more depressed, anxious, and even violent.
One in six children in America has a neuro-developmental problem, such as learning deficits and attention deficit disorder. Could it be due to what we are feeding our children and the lack of physical activity?
In his landmark paper, Healthier Students are Better Learners: A Missing Link in School Reforms to Close the Achievement Gap, Columbia professor, Charles Basch documents the self-evident premise that kids’ brains can’t work properly if they don’t eat well and move their bodies.
When one in three kids skips breakfast and the rest have vending machine fare of chips and soda, sugary cereals, or worse, how can they learn? When the average kid logs eight hours of screen time a day, but only one in five kids meets the recommended levels of physical activity a day, developing brains don’t work.
Professor Basch recently met with Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, and recommended a series of policy changes that will lead to healthier and smarter kids.
Research shows that food additives contribute to attention deficit disorder that affects almost one in 10 children, with many more suffering a milder version. A landmark new paper in the Lancet found that delayed food sensitivities caused attention deficit disorder, and removing food sensitivities could reverse attention deficit disorder in 75 percent of children.
Aggression, violence, and bullying are on the rise in schools. In 2005, there were 628,000 violent crimes among students between the ages of 12 and 18. Twenty-eight percent of these kids reported being bullied in the previous six months, and eight percent were threatened or injured with a weapon in the preceding 12 months. A prison study in England found that supplementing prisoners with a multi-vitamin and fish oil could reduce violent crime in prisons by 37 percent. While diet is one piece of the puzzle, providing an environment where our children feel safe and secure is crucial to their wellbeing.
So what can you do to help your child and what can we do as a nation to raise a smarter, fitter, happier generation of children? It is a two-part solution. We have to take back our homes and take back our schools, which have been hijacked by the food industry.
Take Back Your Homes
You have total control over what you bring into your home and what you choose to do there. Small changes can have a big impact on your family’s and your children’s health and happiness. These changes also impact the food industry, agriculture, and marketing practices.
- Eat at home. In 1900, two percent of meals were eaten outside the home. In 2010, 50 percent were eaten away from home. One in five households eats breakfast from McDonald’s. Family meals happen about three times a week, last less than 20 minutes, and are spent watching television or texting while each family member eats a different microwavable “food” made in different factories. We complain of not having enough time to cook, but Americans spend more time watching cooking shows on The Food Network than actually preparing their own meals.
- Eat a real breakfast. This is a critical life skill we must reclaim and teach our children. Kids (and adults) who eat breakfast are thinner and smarter. Think real, whole protein-rich food to power up the brain and metabolism for the day.
- Eat together. No matter how modest the meal, create a special place to sit down together, and set the table with care and respect. Family meals are a time for empathy and generosity, a time to nourish and communicate. Research shows that children who have regular meals with their parents do better in every way — from better grades to healthier relationships to staying out of trouble, and they are 42 percent less likely to drink, 50 percent less likely to smoke cigarettes, and 66 percent less likely to smoke pot. Regular family dinners protect girls from bulimia, anorexia, and diet pills. Family dinners reduce the incidence of childhood obesity. In a study on household routines and obesity in American preschool-aged children, kids as young as four had a lower risk of obesity if they ate regular family dinners, had enough sleep, and didn’t watch TV on weekdays. Taking back our family dinners will help us learn how to find and prepare real food quickly and simply, teach our children how to connect, and build security, safety, and social skills, meal after meal, day after day.
- Reclaim your kitchen. Throw out foods with high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated fats, and sugars or fat as the first or second ingredient on the label. Fill your kitchen with real, fresh, whole, local foods whenever possible. Join a community-supported agricultural network to get a cheaper supply of fresh vegetables, or shop at nearby farmer’s markets.
- Plant a garden. It’s the tastiest, most nutritious, most environmentally friendly food you will ever eat. You can create a small garden in a box on your roof or porch if you have limited space.
- Conserve, compost, and recycle. Bring your own shopping bags to the market and recycle your paper, cans, bottles, and plastic. Start a compost bucket and use it in your garden or find out where in your community you can share this rich fertilizer.
- Give your children (and yourself) a multivitamin, fish oil, and vitamin D every day. It will help to build better brains and better bodies.
Take Back Our Schools
- Help reinvent school lunch programs. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 removes junk food from schools by applying nutrition standards to all foods sold in schools (including vending machines in hallways), and supports access to fresh produce through farm-to-school networks, the creation of school gardens, and the use of local foods. It doesn’t solve the void in education for self-care and nutrition, but it is a beginning. Watch the movies, Two Angry Moms and Lunch: What are Kids Munching On? to learn how to take back the lunchroom.
- Support schools as safe zones, where access is only to foods that promote health and optimal brain functioning.
- Support changes in zoning laws. Prevent fast food and junk food outlets from operating next to schools.
- Build school gardens. Teach children about the origins of food and let them experience the sensory delight of real, garden-fresh fruits and vegetables. Jamie Oliver could not get one child in a classroom in West Virginia to identify one vegetable. This is a national crisis.
- Support the integration of self-care and nutrition curriculum into schools. Work with your local or regional school board to introduce programs like Mehmet Oz’s HealthCorps into schools around the country.
- Bring back basic cooking skills to schools as part of a curriculum – including essential life tools.
- Bring back mandatory physical education programs into schools. Physical activity has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety, improve cognitive performance, and stimulate BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) production (like Miracle-Gro for brain cells) that increases the number and connections between brain cells.
Remember, childhood obesity is not the only result of a poor diet. Kids with bigger bellies can have smaller brains. The insults of poor diet and lack of activity have staggering implications for our children and their health and cognitive abilities. But we have the knowledge and capacity to take back our homes and our schools and create healthier, smarter, and fitter children.