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Posted: November 01, 2011

Guest column: Teaching our kids to eat well at school

School cafeterias are our ally in the fight against obesity

By Marin Stewart

Today's generation of American children may be the first in two centuries to have shorter life expectancies than their parents. While there are many reasons, childhood obesity - and its alarming rate of increase throughout the U.S. - maybe the most devastating one.

Childhood obesity is of particular concern in Colorado. Though the state continues to be designated as the nation's leanest for adults, more than half are obese or overweight, and our children are faring even worse. The most recent data indicate that one-quarter of our children are overweight or obese. In fact, Colorado has the second-fastest-growing childhood obesity rate in the country, recently dropping from third leanest to 23rd in a matter of a few years.

As childhood obesity rates skyrocket, interventions focused in schools provide critical opportunities to combat this epidemic. In Colorado, nearly 400,000 children participate in the national lunch program, with upwards of 40 percent qualifying for free or reduced lunch. For many of these students, school-provided meals represent the only source of balanced nutrition they will receive during the day.

Yet despite dwindling resources, school districts must feed a large student population with minimal funding, making it challenging to serve food that is nutritious and appealing.

If we can support schools as resources that not only provide nutritious, tasty meals but also expand our children's appreciation for them, we can build healthy habits that will last a lifetime and combat the childhood obesity epidemic.

LiveWell Colorado, a nonprofit committed to reducing obesity by promoting healthy eating and active living, has developed a nine-week healthy cooking competition for Denver Public Schools high school students. Students who participate in EatWell@School will take on the challenge of preparing healthy school meals while learning cooking and nutrition skills that can be shared with their families and have long-lasting positive effects.

Led by Johnson and Wales volunteer chef mentors, students from Manual High School, Bruce Randolph High School, KIPP Denver Collegiate High School and Martin Luther King Jr. Early College will learn how to prepare a healthy and delicious school lunch. Student teams will compete to prepare menus that align with the standards for public school lunches, including meeting or exceeding USDA nutrition guidelines, and staying within budgets of less than a dollar a meal.

This initiative is one of several strategies LiveWell Colorado leads to achieve our vision of every student having access to and choosing healthy food at school. Our two-prong approach focuses on supply and demand - making policy and environmental changes to improve school food environments, and educating and encouraging students to make healthy choices.

Our school culinary training programs have empowered nutrition staff in 75 Colorado school districts to prepare delicious school meals from scratch. Our Go, Slow, Whoa program, piloted in Aurora Public Schools, is helping students in 13 elementary schools learn to identify healthy food choices. And our focus on improving schools' access to healthy foods has led to the development of a Farm to School Primer and the statutory creation of Colorado's first Food Systems Advisory Council appointed by the governor.

The EatWell@School competition will culminate as the top teams are recognized and the winning team's lunch is served at LiveWell Colorado's second annual fundraising luncheon on Dec. 8. Proceeds from the luncheon will help LiveWell Colorado lead the development and implementation of initiatives promoting healthy eating and active living to reduce obesity in Colorado. For more information or to purchase a table or tickets, please visit www.livewellcolorado.org.

By providing schools with the resources to serve healthier food to Colorado's kids and by teaching children how to make healthier choices, we can create a future in which our children will thrive.

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