LANSING- School districts around the state are working to make sure the “fast-food generation” doesn’t go down as the shortest-lived one.
To combat obesity rates that tripled among 6-to-9-year-olds since 1963, school systems are offering healthier options, getting rid of fatty foods and stressing the importance of eating a quality breakfast.
A 2004 federal law requires any school funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s lunch program to have a wellness policy.
Certain foods such as French fries and fried potato chips were taken off menus, said Kyle Guerrant, supervisor for the Coordinated School Health and Safety Programs Unit of the Michigan Department of Education.
Not only will healthier students avoid obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes, but they’ll also perform better in the classroom and miss fewer days of class, Guerrant said.
“Obesity is a growing issue for our country, both educationally and health-wise,” Guerrant said. “There is a link between health and academics.”
In 2007, 16.5 percent of Michigan high school students were overweight and 12.4 percent were obese, according to the Department of Community Health.
Meanwhile, 83 percent of youth consumed inadequate fruits and vegetables in 2007.
Obesity has been a “recognized pattern of development” for the past 30 years, but there has also been a growing acceptance of healthier living measures, said Mary Claya, child nutrition consultant for the Macomb Intermediate School District, which has 1,500 students.
The food industry also needs to catch up with more stringent nutritional standards, she said, but schools can’t demand that companies create healthier options overnight.
“School menus are a very good value. The choices have improved,” she said. Obesity is a problem “for pretty much the entire population.”
Claya said every breakfast must include a meat, grain product, vegetable and milk while meeting 25 percent of a student’s daily nutritional need.
In Detroit’s 172 public schools, free breakfast is available for their 85,000 students.
The breakfast program was created in 2002, but it went “under the net” shortly after and was revived at the beginning of this school year, said Corrinn Manns, program associate of training, marketing and promotion of food services for the Detroit system.
Manns estimates that nearly 45,000 students eat breakfast in school each morning.
“We have met the challenge. Children that are hungry can’t concentrate and they have poor attendance,” Manns said. “We know that with the economy, many people have lost jobs and it’s hard for parents to meet nutrition guidelines.”
The Detroit district has also added salad bars to some of its locations to fulfill protein and vitamin requirements, Manns said.
Janet Allen, president of the School Nutrition Association of Michigan, said there are several factors contribute to childhood obesity, including lack of exercise and home-cooked meals.
Allen, who is also the nutrition supervisor for the 8,100-student Clarkston Community School District, said she doesn’t believe schools had any role in the obesity epidemic, but districts still needed to “tighten things up a little bit.”
In Clarkston, sports drinks have been eliminated. Like other districts, Clarkston also sells baked potato chips instead of fried ones, she said.
Of Clarkston’s 11 schools, eight of them of serve breakfast.
“We’ve doubled our breakfast programs over the past three years,” Allen said. “That’s contributed to healthier students.”