Healthy Homework: No escape from healthy lifestyle effort

Federal law aimed at kids trickles down to fast-food menu details.

February 5, 2011 

Some might call it the "nanny state." Others will welcome government intervention in what we eat. And some will ignore common-sense remedies that will keep them looking and feeling better.

Whatever the reaction, there's no avoiding a push by the federal government and state and local leaders to help make Americans take better care of themselves.

All schoolchildren, for example, will soon be offered healthier and more nutritious food options in schools. They'll also be taught to make healthy food choices.

Those improvements are part of a new federal law. In early December, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 into law. The act authorizes $4.5 billion in funding for federal school meal and child nutrition programs over 10 years. It increases access to healthy food for low-income children.

"At a very basic level, this act is about doing what's right for our children," Obama said the day he signed the bill at Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Washington, D.C. "Right now, across the country, too many kids don't have access to school meals. And often, the food that's being offered isn't as healthy or as nutritious as it should be. That's part of the reason why one in three children in America today are either overweight or obese."

Obama cited the fact that doctors are beginning to see such conditions as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes in children. Those conditions once were seen only in adults.

"This bill is about reversing that trend and giving our kids the healthy futures that they deserve," he said.

The act will reimburse schools an additional 6 cents for every lunch. That's the first increase in more than 30 years. And about 115,000 more children will be eligible to enroll in the school meal program.

Under the act, the Department of Agriculture has the authority to set nutritional standards. Communities will get help to establish local farm-to-school networks and to create school gardens. School districts will be audited to improve compliance with nutritional standards, among other changes.

Schools in California

William Dunlavy, director of Nutrition Services at Merced Union High School District, said California has been ahead of the curve when it comes to serving healthier meals in schools. He said schools in the state might not see many changes as a result of the new law.

Terri Soares, registered dietitian and nutrition serv-ices director for the Merced City School District, said it's a slow process, but that schools are making a difference. "It takes a while to change behaviors," she said.

Parents and caregivers need to support and encourage their children to eat healthy at home as well, Soares said, and to be active.

"We need to get our kids off the couch," she said.

Schools like Le Grand High School may be on the right track. The development of a community garden is in the planning stages as part of the Building Healthy Communities initiative. Principal Javier Martinez said the plan is to have students and the community involved in the garden to better educate them about nutrition. "We want to get the parents involved in this project as well," he said.

Local efforts

The Merced Lao Family Community Inc. recently received a $19,579 grant that it plans to use to start the Southeast Asian Healthy Living Project. The program is meant to teach children from newborns to 18 about healthy eating habits, the importance of physical activity and the long-term consequences of being overweight.

Houa Vang, executive director for the family community, said the center will recruit 40 Asian families who have children who weigh too much. The center will advertise the program through local TV and fliers that will be posted in schools and preschools.

After the families are chosen, the organization will work with their children for one year. Each will be given a scale, and the children's weight and diet changes will be measured throughout the program. The children also will be taught about high blood pressure and diabetes.

Vang said nowadays parents buy their children whatever they want to eat. But he hopes the program will teach the parents about the importance of providing their children healthy foods. "We want parents to watch what they are buying for their kids, and what they are eating," he said. "We believe that the change in diet will work."

Other local health advocates and organizations are also trying to make a difference in the community.

Eileen Vidales, a health advocate, said she's on a mission to create awareness in the community and make Merced a healthier place for people to live.

"I've seen more and more children and young adults become overweight, and I want to help make a difference in the community in regard to our weight issue," she said.

Vidales, who volunteers several hours each week to area nonprofits, began an afternoon walking group this week to encourage people to stay active. The group will meet at 12:30 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday at Bob Hart Square downtown.

She also presents a natural health seminar once a month, which is free and open to the community, to learn more about healthier lifestyles.

Vidales also is working in several projects with the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program in Merced County. "We will make a difference five to 10 years from now," she said.

Kelly Brown, a health advocate, is working to promote healthier habits in Le Grand. But she's aiming beyond students. "We've got to teach the parents," she said.

She is working to organize a health fair in April.

The Network for a Healthy California Merced County Office of Education is working with just under 10,000 students and more than 400 teachers throughout the county.

Jaci Westbrook, who manages the local program, said teachers are trained to incorporate nutrition into their curriculum.

"We are working to promote education and to have students try new fruits and vegetables and get physically active for a healthy lifestyle," she said.

The group also manages the Harvest of the Month Program, in which a different vegetable is promoted in class. Each student gets to taste the vegetable. "The hope is that they are going to go home and ask their parents to buy what they tried," she said.

Individual teachers are able to participate in the network, but the school where they work has to have more than 50 percent of its students on a free or reduced lunch, Westbrook said.

The group has been in the area working with students and teachers since 2003. Westbrook said they have seen a difference.

A major indicator of success, Westbrook said, is that teachers are reaching out to the network for help or advice.

Tammy Moss Chandler, director for the Merced County Department of Public Health, said the department has an Adolescent Family Life Program, which works in partnership with the Human Services Agency's CalLearn program.

"The adolescent Family Life Program is designed to enhance the health, social, economic, and educational well-being of pregnant and parenting adolescents and their children," she said.

The University of California Cooperative Extension is also involved in local efforts to promote healthier lifestyles.

Changes in fast-food restaurants

California was the first state to pass a law that requires fast-food outlets to print nutritional information on all menus.

In July 2009, the first phase of Senate Bill 1420 began to require chain restaurants with at least 20 venues to give the calories, grams of saturated fat, grams of carbohydrates and milligrams of sodium information on every menu item. For sit-down restaurants, the information has to be provided at the table. All drive-throughs are required to have brochures available upon request and post a notice saying so.

At the beginning of this year, the second phase of the law began, requiring calories to be listed on menus and menu boards next to each item.

Chuck Newcomb, a registered dietitian in the Central Valley, said it's easier to get meals with lower calories at fast-food places.

"You can get milk and salads with light dressing instead of the regular one," he said.

At McDonald's, for example, customers have the option of exchanging french fries with sliced apples.

With the information that restaurants have to make available to consumers, people will know what's in their meal, Newcomb said. For example, the Guacamole Bacon Six Dollar Burger from Carl's Jr. has 1,040 calories, 24 grams of saturated fat, 51 grams of carbohydrates and 2,240 milligrams of sodium.

But that might not make much of a difference to teenagers. "Unfortunately, a lot of kids think they're immortal. They're not worried about what kind of sickness they might get when they are old," Newcomb said.

But youngsters need to be their own health advocates. "Parents and the government aren't really going to do it for them," he said. They need to learn to say, " 'I have to be healthy for myself.' "

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 388-6507 or yamaro@mercedsun-star.com.

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