This quarter I've been working with a professor in the College of Health and Human Services on something called the Healthy Schools Project. I named it, actually - it was just an amorphous thing we inherited from another prof . Our goal is to help local schools coordinate foodservice staff, parents, administrators, and students in order to improve the nutritional content of school lunches.
This has, at times, made me uncomfortable. Apparently the childhood obesity epidemic is the scariest thing since nuclear winter. Unfortunately, a lot of the literature I've read is along the lines of "OMG the kids are fatties here give them celery all better." I'm exaggerating a little, but the effect is similar. I agree that some cafeteria foods are crap. The so-called "pizza boat" that was available in my high school consisted of a giant slice of greasy pizza and a large sack of fries. Most people ate this with a packet of ranch dressing. They weren't obese or even overweight (most of my friends were slender), but that ain't good for anybody's arteries.
Unfortunately, the nutrition literature sometimes skims over the link between poverty and obesity. Foodservice and management writers get it - schools without much tax or state revenue sell "competitive foods" - the pizza, the Doritos, the Little Debbies. There's lots of other things mixed in, too - competitive foods have higher prestige, they're quicker to eat, they taste familiar and good. So the problem isn't necessarily going to be solved by cutting competitive foods and force-feeding kids celery sticks.
One project we're working on is posting nutritional information in cafeteria lines. I'm ... I'm not sure how I feel about this. There's the infamous NYC law that's caused a flurry all across the blogosphere. On the one hand, information is important. On the other hand, calories aren't everything (I tell myself that every day). I spoke up at a meeting last week and said I feel uncomfortable posting straight calorie counts. I don't think elementary and middle schoolers understand how to work that into a daily dietary plan - if kids are even thinking about that at all. Post information about fiber content, calcium, vitamins and minerals. Help kids choose foods that are going to nourish them - even if they have more calories! An eleven-year-old is going to do better with a turkey sandwich with cheese, tomato, lettuce, and mustard on whole wheat - which has protein, fiber, calcium, fat, and vitamins - than a side salad that might have fewer calories, but doesn't have all the other good stuff.
And I'm really trying not to let all this be a trigger.