“We Are Hungry” (…or are we malnourished?)

I love kids.  I have a particular affection for smart, witty teenagers who aren’t afraid to take a stand on issues that are important, especially the ones that affect them.  As the parent of two smart, witty teenagers myself, I am well aware that food is an important issue to them.

My kids, for various reasons, don’t eat the lunches served at their high school.  But millions of kids across the nation do.  And so it was with particular interest that I read yesterday about a YouTube video that has taken the internet by storm this week.  Apparently, some young people in Kansas are not terribly pleased with the federal government’s recent adoption of the 2010 Healthy Hungry Free Kids Act – mostly because, according to them, the new school lunch mandates leave them feeling the opposite of hungry free.

As you might recall from my post a few weeks ago, the USDA’s guidelines for school lunches call for a cap on calories in an effort to combat childhood obesity.   And apparently, this is leading many students to feel pangs of hunger in the afternoon – ostensibly leading to lack of focus in the classroom, and lethargy on the athletic fields.  One sixteen year old football player complained about the cutbacks in a USA Today article: last year, they were given six chicken nuggets for lunch, while this year, they were only given three.

This is the government’s idea of a healthier lunch – three chicken nuggets instead of six.

Once again, this betrays serious ignorance on the part of people who set policy about the food our children eat.   Because people who aren’t ignorant know that weight gain and weight loss are not simply matters of calories in and calories out.   It’s not just the junk we take out of our diets.  Perhaps even more important is the good food we add in.

Dr. Dean Ornish, clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and the founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, wrote  a great piece in the New York Times this week, where he makes this point extremely clear.   Dr. Ornish says, “Perhaps the biggest misconception is that as long as you lose weight, it doesn’t matter what you eat.”

(Like, if you only eat three chicken nuggets, you’re eating healthier than if you eat six. – The Wellness Wordsmith)

He continues, “…being thin and being healthy are not at all the same thing. Being overweight is not necessarily linked with disease or premature death. What you eat affects which diseases you may develop, regardless of whether you’re thin or fat. Some diets that may help you lose weight may be harmful to your health over time.”

This is very true.  But taking things a step further, Dr. Joel Fuhrman reminds us that the best diet for health is also the best diet for weight loss.  A diet rich in nutrient dense plants is one that usually leads to the weight loss taking care of itself, while primarily leading to greater health across the board.

Ah, but when it comes to school lunches, the kids won’t eat the good stuff, you say.  Indeed, my impression of the students on the YouTube video is that they’d be quite happy with extra fries and pizza to fill their bellies.  That’s because that’s what they know.  Most teenagers, just like most adults, have yet to be introduced to the world of delicious, nutritious, whole foods.

But some kids have.  The Appleton, Wisconsin, Central Alternative High School is a shining example of the power of real food.   Chef Bobo of New York City’s Calhoun School is a national celebrity, as his kids even eat food grown on the school’s roof at a cost just around what the cheap, lousy lunches in other schools cost.  Do the students turn their noses up at these offerings?

Hardly.  What kids rightly turn their noses up at are half-hearted attempts to make lunches “healthier” by cutting calories, being pointed to self serve bars with not so fresh fruit, and being served overcooked, tasteless vegetables alongside smaller portions of foods that, while not healthy, at least taste better.

When people with real culinary skills go out of their way to really prepare awesome, nutritious foods for kids, the kids eat it.  The kids like it.  Some even love it, get involved with growing it, harvesting it, learning how to cook it.  Appropriate changes in young people’s diets lead to positive changes in behavior in the present moment, and positive habits for life.    As a school principal, I saw for myself what a difference serving healthy foods and green smoothies made for my own students.

We need to care enough about our kids to train our cafeteria workers to make these foods.  We need to care enough about our kids to break with processed food vendors and buy real food to serve them.  And for all the people out there who say it can’t be done, I say… actually, it can be done.

Want to help me prove it to them?  I don’t usually do this, but I’m sending out a request this week.  If you have a super healthy meal recipe, with nothing processed, refined or enriched, and one that could be prepared cafeteria-style and adopted by a school lunch program, would you share it with me?  Send your recipes directly to my email address at TheWellnessWordsmith@gmail.com, and don’t forget to include your name.

I’d like to gather the recipes together and send them in a package to that school in Kansas, and see if the district might take advantage of an opportunity to capitalize on the popularity of this YouTube video by doing something spectacularly good for their students.

Like feeding them real food.  Within the government’s caloric restrictions, of course.

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It’s a short blog article this week, because you’ll get to read a lot from me on the blog this weekend.  I’ll be blogging my impressions of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition’s Student Conference on Saturday and Sunday – speakers such as John Doullaird, Mark Bittman, and of course Joshua Rosenthal will be sharing their wisdom live in New York City.  I’ll be in North Carolina myself, viewing the livestream with thousands of others around the world.  If you care to watch it for yourself, you can register here:  http://www.integrativenutritionlive.com/    Check back on my blog frequently throughout the weekend to get my take on things.  IIN will also feature some of my posts on its own blog – it will be an IINspiring weekend!

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