Does government play a role in children eating healthy?

This week in a course I teach at the University of Dayton, I had students watch the documentary “Fed Up”. It highlights the childhood obesity epidemic and the many factors contributing to poor dietary behavior in children. The narrators look at factors such as individual eating behavior as well as the role of food industry and governmental policy in our food system.

A major question I am often asked is whether children’s’ poor dietary habits are the fault of the parents or if there are other factors at play. Also, who is responsible for encouraging healthy eating in our children. Is it only the parents?

Research suggests that food habits are reproduced intergenerationally, in that parents who make healthy eating choices tend to encourage the same behaviors in their children. However, what about the children of parents who make less healthy eating choices? Does the collective community or the government bare any responsibility in helping children develop healthy eating habits?

If your answer is even the most muted form of probably or maybe, then what are the most effective methods and spaces to teach children about healthy eating? If your answer is no, then how can we expect adults to make healthy decisions about food in the face of the convenience of government subsidized fast food, today’s fast paced work place, and the food industry’s multi-million dollar ad budgets?

To me Jonathon, this means that children must receive some sort of baseline education about making healthy food choices in school. This education could manifest in a number of different ways. Primarily, it means the return of home economics or some sort of similar class. Certainly, we don’t need a return to the mid-century curriculum that declared the kitchen as a female space.

Rather, our children need be able to recognize that french fries come from potatoes that farmers grow in the soil. French fries do not come from the bag in the frozen food grocery store.

Further, this education on food might also start in the school cafeteria. Research suggests that many school struggle to find a balance between serving foods that students want to eat and food that is healthy for growing bodies and minds.

Often, the healthiness a cafeteria’s food is predicated upon the income level of the school district. Local funding of school districts has a long, and often contested, tradition in this country. I’m not taking a stand on that issue here, but it seems reasonable to me that if research suggests children perform better scholastically when they are fed healthy food, then some government intervention is necessary to ensure that occurs universally across the nation.

The Obama administration’s Healthy Hunger Free Kids (HHK) Act of 2010 pushed federal policy in this direction. However, roadblocks arose as many children refused to eat the newer, healthier fare served in their cafeterias.

Limited research on this suggests that school food service directors have implemented some creative solutions to navigate around this problem such as changing over to whole wheat pasta over a long break (e.g. winter or spring break) so that children as less likely to remember the taste of the white pasta. However, such innovation is bound to be piecemeal. HHK’s required changes may prepare students for better food choices later in life, but currently faces scrutiny.

This was an argument for the role of the government and larger community in encouraging healthy dietary habits in children. Stay tuned to next month’s column where our focus will change to those of the parents.

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