Teaching Our Kids to Eat Well at School

By Maren Stewart

By Maren Stewart, LiveWell Colorado, Denver
Posted

Today's generation of American children may be the first in two centuries to have shorter life expectancies than their parents. While there are many reasons, childhood obesity -- and its alarming rate of increase throughout the United States -- may be the most devastating one.

Childhood obesity is of particular concern in Colorado. Though the state continues to be designated as the nation's leanest for adults, more than half are obese or overweight, and our children are faring even worse. The most recent data indicate that one quarter of our children are overweight or obese. In fact, Colorado has the second- fastest growing childhood obesity rate in the country, recently dropping from third leanest to 23rd in the country over a matter of a few years.

Obesity is complex problem belonging to us all, and solutions won't come easy. For example, schools in particular face difficulties providing healthy meals for children. Experiencing dwindling resources, school districts often are challenged to feed a large student population with little funding. Serving food that is affordable, nutritious and appealing to students can become a difficult undertaking.

In Colorado, nearly 400,000 children participate in the national lunch program, with upwards of 40 percent qualifying for free or reduced lunch. For many of these students, school-provided meals represent the only source of balanced nutrition they will receive during the day. If we can support school cafeterias as resources that not only provide nutritious, tasty meals but also expand our children's appreciation for them, we can build healthy habits that will last a lifetime.

To lead this school food renaissance, LiveWell Colorado, a nonprofit committed to reducing obesity by promoting healthy eating and active living, has developed a nine-week healthy cooking competition for Denver Public Schools high school students. Students who participate in EatWell@School take on the challenge of preparing healthy school meals while learning cooking and nutrition skills that can be shared with their families and have long-lasting positive effects.

Led by Johnson & Wales University volunteer chef mentors, students from Manual High School, Bruce Randolph High School, KIPP Denver Collegiate High School and Martin Luther King Jr. Early College recently learned how to prepare a healthy and delicious school lunch. These student teams competed to prepare menus that align with the standards for public school lunches, including meeting or exceeding USDA nutrition guidelines, and staying within budgets of less than a dollar a meal.

This initiative is one of several strategies LiveWell Colorado leads to achieve our vision of every student having access to and choosing healthy food at school. Our two-prong approach focuses on supply and demand -- making policy and environmental changes to improve school food environments, and educating and encouraging students to make healthy choices. Our school culinary training programs have empowered nutrition staff in 64 Colorado school districts to prepare delicious school meals from scratch. Our Go, Slow, Whoa program, which launched in Aurora Public Schools and recently expanded to the Cherry Creek School District, is helping students in 18 elementary schools learn to identify healthy food choices. And our focus on improving schools' access to healthy foods has led to the development of a Farm to School Primer and the statutory creation of Colorado's first Food Systems Advisory Council appointed by the Governor.

The EatWell@School competition culminated at LiveWell Colorado's second annual fundraising luncheon on Dec. 8, 2011, where the participating teams were recognized and Manual High School's winning meal was served to the nearly 600 attendees. Proceeds from the luncheon will help LiveWell Colorado lead the development and implementation of initiatives promoting healthy eating and active living to reduce obesity in Colorado. For more information on EatWell@School and our other initiatives, please visit livewellcolorado.org.

By providing schools with the resources to serve healthier food to Colorado's kids and by teaching children how to make healthier choices, we can create a future in which our children will thrive.