Around him, many kids in the Sunset Park Elementary cafeteria in South Miami-Dade were gingerly nibbling at fresh vegetables from the new salad bar, encouraged by hovering parent volunteers and teachers. Manuel Rodriguez, 6, had his eyes on something else.
A plastic container, brought from home, contained a thick square of chocolate cake with a layer of white frosting. As he dug into the cake, he was asked if that was all he had for lunch. He shook his head somberly, pointing to a Pedialyte nutrition drink.
With one in three American children considered overweight or obese — and the trend dangerously upward — the federal government has launched a new campaign this school year to strengthen nutritional requirements for school lunches.
The move has been strongly championed by the White House, particularly first lady Michelle Obama, and it has sparked a backlash. In the politicization of nutrition, Republican stalwart Sarah Palin has defiantly served cookies to children. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh blames the Obamas for destroying Twinkies, while the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance persuaded Disney World to close down an anti-obesity exhibit.
In the case of school laws, the new standards emphasize fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat milk while limiting caloric intake.
The response, like a serving of succotash, has been mixed.
Many students were dismayed, at least initially. A poll taken by the Coral Gables High newspaper last fall found that 59 percent didn’t like the new regulations. Editor Ali Stack said that “students are now used to the food,” but miss Papa John’s pizza. Overall, she said, attitudes about cafeteria offerings had not changed: “Gross” before and “gross” now.
Sabrina Rodriguez, editor of the Hialeah High newspaper, said most students “still did not like the new standards.” They got used to it, she said, but most still throw out the vegetables.
Penny Parham, nutrition director for Miami-Dade schools, said the tales of more waste aren’t supported by reports from field offices. In fact, she said increased numbers of elementary and middle school kids are eating cafeteria lunches this year, while high school participation remains about the same. Broward schools also report no waste increase.
The larger question is how much a school — or any institution outside the home — can alter eating patterns that many experts believe are deeply ingrained, starting from the earliest years. Many obesity experts believe changing those habits will take decades. “Note that it took 50 years of anti-tobacco campaigns to lower smoking rates from 50 percent of the population to 20 percent,” said James Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition in Colorado.
“There’s no question that schools can’t fix everything,” said Roland Sturm, a senior economist specializing in obesity issues at the California-based RAND Corp. Parents’ influence remains “hugely important,’’ he said, but “the school environment is an important norm-setter for healthy behavior.”
With most public school kids in Miami-Dade on free or reduced-lunch programs, and many also eating breakfast, the influence of school menu changes may be bigger than in many places. Still, Sheah Rarback, a University of Miami nutrition expert, said improving student diets will require “a combined effort to tackle this devastating problem, a real partnership between home and school.’’