The following editorial appeared July 25 in the Florence Morning News:
This might be a first. South Carolina is eating the other 49 states for lunch.
According to figures states reported to the United States Department of Agriculture, nearly 93 percent of South Carolina school districts are meeting standards for healthier school lunches. No other state had a compliance rate of 90 percent. Mississippi, in second, had a rate of 83.4 percent, both well above the national average of 53.7 percent. Every school district in the country that participates in the nearly ubiquitous National School Lunch Program is required to meet the regulations, but there is no deadline.
The regulations – the first time the USDA has updated its standards in 17 years – call for more fruits and vegetables and limit meats. Fat-free milk must be included, while any form of trans fat is prohibited. The calorie cap on lunches is 850 calories, or about one-third of the needs of the average child. The USDA sets out the basic nutrition standards, but how that is executed is based on local decision-making.
We’ve seen South Carolina and Mississippi near the top of lists for eating before… but not for healthy eating. The adult obesity rate in South Carolina is 31.5 percent, and 66.9 percent are overweight, which makes the state one of the worst in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Among adolescents here, 16.7 percent are obese and 15 percent are overweight. Mississippi tops the nation with a 34.9 obesity rate amongst all of its citizens.
While it may seem like a bit of a non sequitur for some of the most obese states in the nation to be serving its children the healthiest lunches, there is a rather lucrative carrot for the districts that are in compliance.
States are reimbursed 6 cents per lunch served for school districts that meet regulations. That kind of no-strings-attached federal aid tickles the tummy, which could explain why traditionally poorer states such as South Carolina and Mississippi have been so quick to get their compliance acts together.
These states are extending their healthy eating education from the lunchroom to the classroom as well. Mississippi schools have been overhauling their education on healthy lifestyles for several years now – and it may be working. According to a recent study there by three of the state’s universities, in the five years prior to the new federal mandates, the childhood obesity rate decreased by more than 13 percent. South Carolina, too, is using several different initiatives in helping reach the 32 percent of adolescents in the state considered obese or overweight with programs such as Eat Smart, Move More South Carolina and ABC Grow.
So this all sounds like good news and we'll take all the lofty national rankings we can get, but there is still the question of how much do the federal guidelines actually reduce childhood obesity. Just because there are healthier options available, it does not mean they are being eaten.
Inevitably with young children and healthier food, there’s bound to be the “yuck” factor to contend with as well as children complaining the leaner options are not enough to sustain their hunger.
There are certainly going to be some kids that need more food, and schools can participate in the after-school snacks program. They can participate in a breakfast program in order to help supplement the needs of those kids. Parents, too, can send a healthy snack, particularly if their kids have after-school sports or something where they may be staying at school a longer amount of time.
But parents also should take an opportunity to connect with their local school food service director, find out what they’re doing, see if there’s a way they can be supportive or what the hurdles may be in getting the type of school menus they want for their children.
Educators and school leaders can help as well by setting an example and encouraging kids to make healthy choices, to get kids to actually change their habits and choose to fill half their plate with fruits and vegetables.
That’s certainly a full plate, but if everyone can do their part to control their portion, it might just lead to some changes.