With the recent focus on childhood obesity, school lunches are under a microscope.  Doctors, politicians, and health advocates are putting the pressure on schools to boost the nutrients and curb the soda and snack vending machines.  First Lady Michelle Obama chose this issue as a priority, and the recently-signed Child Nutrition Act will allow the U.S. government to set nutritional standards for schools, and provide subsidies for those meal plans.
A recent Boston Globe article highlights a Cornell economics professor’s ideas to use somewhat sneaky tactics to improve eating in school and “make the lunchroom smarter.”  Put apples and oranges in a shiny bowl with nice lighting, he says, to encourage fruit consumption.  Place the chocolate milk just out of a small person’s reach, forcing the lazier students to grab the low-fat or plain milk instead.  Make students pass the salad bar first, and they may just eat it.  While these tactics are proven to be effective, and may be necessary to promote health in the immediacy, I couldn’t help but wonder… can’t we find another way to shift our children’s thinking without all the trickery?
After all, with children turning quickly into adolescents, it won’t be long before they are teenagers and adults, making their own food choices every day.   Therefore, trickery isn’t sufficient.  It is not enough to eat these peas “because I said so” or because they’re the only option.
Girls, especially, are at risk for developing disordered eating habits as adolescents and teenagers; binging, restriction, and complicated relationships with food.  Let’s teach girls early that food, while enjoyable, is much more than pleasure or a social activity.  It’s more than mindless snacking.  It’s more than a way to “make you fat.”
It’s nourishment.  It’s energy for our bodies.  Whatever we put in is the energy we get out.
It’s also a way to act with purpose and compassion, to choose the best way we can for the environment, animals, world hunger, and life-long health.
I know, these ideas sound too broad and complicated for a child.  But we should not underestimate the social consciousness of our newest generation.   With knowledge of the following principles, perhaps we can empower our youngsters to eat with a sense of purpose and choice.
1. Eating locally helps the environment and supports business owners at home.  Shipping food from across the country results in extra pollution, shipping costs, as well as food that may spoil and lose nutrients.  Tufts University, a SWSG college chapter, has focused on bringing local food right to campus.  A psychoanalyst even says that eating sustainably and locally can make us happier people!
2. A plant-based lifestyle is tied to lower rates of serious diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
3. By choosing more foods that are close to the earth and decreasing consumption of animal protein, we are being kind to:

Animals.  It’s easy to order a cheeseburger, chicken fingers, and a milkshake from a fast food joint, but do our children understand the factory farming that gave us the beef from the cow, the lives of the chickens before they became nuggets, and the dairy production that gave us cheese and the milkshake?

The environment.  Kids are increasingly ecological-minded, and might be shocked to learn that reducing our meat intake by just 20% has the same environmental impact as switching from a standard sedan to an energy-efficient car, like a Prius.

World hunger.  Our food choices have a global impact, too.  Increased demand for meat in the U.S. has led to deforestation around the world, in order to clear room for grazing.  In addition, the “feed cost” for an eight ounce steak could provide a full cup of grains to 45-50 hungry people.

4. The reasons to drink water and forgo soda and other sugary, processed foods are clear.  If I can’t pronounce or identify an ingredient, I’m less likely to eat that packaged food.  Artificial sweeteners, like aspartame and Splenda have been linked to problems like diarrhea, headaches, dizziness, and bladder pain, as well as more serious issues like birth defects and infertility, and risk of stroke and heart attacks.  To satisfy those sugar cravings, why not occasionally eat naturally-occurring sweet foods like berries, dates, maple syrup, or dark chocolate?
We spend significant time researching which car to buy, which movie to watch, and even which shoes to purchase.  But how much time do we spend deciding what to put into our bodies?  Only by educating kids about the food industry and the health needs of our bodies can we truly empower them to make the right decisions for themselves.