Cartoon characters hawking processed junk, fast-food chains pushing cheap eats, and Big Food manufacturers zeroing in on salty, crunchy, and sugary foods aimed at young taste buds: Sometimes it’s amazing America’s kids ever eat a square meal.
Our children are facing nutrition-related health threats like never before. Parents, teachers, and advocates all understand the challenge — but there are several key efforts to turn things around.
Nutritious School Lunches
Some 31 million students — 22 million of whom are from low-income families — are fed daily via the National School Lunch Program, making it the nation’s second-largest antihunger initiative after the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Gone are the days when policymakers counted ketchup as a vegetable, but parents still have little control over the quality of school meals.
Brigaid is a group of chefs that collaborates with school-kitchen teams to provide training and recipes, empowering districts to offer more nutritious meals. Founded in 2016 by Dan Giusti, former head chef of the restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, Brigaid has worked with school systems around the country.
Brigaid’s latest project, with the Denver Public Schools, is cosponsored by the Life Time Foundation. The nonprofit, charitable arm of Life Time has worked with districts across the United States since 2011 and currently serves 35 school districts, which represent 3,634 schools and 1.7 million students.
“By offering kids high-quality, scratch-cooked meals from kindergarten through 12th grade, you’re setting them up to reach their full potential. Improving our nation’s public-school food programs is one of the most effective ways to positively impact our children’s health,” says Life Time Foundation nutrition project manager Megan Flynn, MPH, RD. “School nutrition professionals show children that they are loved and respected through delicious meals, and teach them how to make healthy choices every day.”
Quality school lunches may also include options for halal, kosher, and vegetarian meals, and more. To answer the challenge, the Berkeley, Calif.–based Edible Schoolyard is aiming to start a garden in every schoolyard to offer better produce for lunchtime as well as inspire young gardeners.
Whole Foods Market’s Whole Kids Foundation promotes school gardens, salad bars, and even beehives.
Tasty Education Programs
Several organizations, including Action for Healthy Kids’ Nourished and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Team nutrition, aim to teach kids the fundamentals of nutrition.
The value of cooking lessons for kids — whether taught in school or by parents at home — pays off through their whole lives. A 2018 study followed teens into their 30s and found that developing cooking skills as a young adult produced long-term benefits for health and nutrition.
“It is important to expose children to healthy foods in a positive way,” says Derek Hersch, BS, coauthor of a 2014 study that reached similar conclusions. “Creating habits and behaviors at this age is the most important part.”
Eating well at home can help shape a kid’s long-term relationship with food, says psychologist and family therapist Anne Fishel, PhD, cofounder of Harvard’s Family Dinner Project, which promotes the value of family meals.
“There have been dozens of studies showing that regular family dinners are great for children’s body, mind, and spirit — their mental health,” Fishel explains.
By the Numbers
Growth from 2001 to 2017 in the number of Americans under age 20 living with type 2 diabetes — which was once considered an adult-onset disease. At the same time, the number of people under age 20 diagnosed with type 1 diabetes increased by 45 percent, according to a 2021 report in JAMA.
The proportion of American kids’ calories that come from ultraprocessed foods like frozen pizza and hamburgers, microwavable meals, and packaged snacks and sweets, according to a nationwide study published in 2021 in JAMA that analyzed the diets of 33,795 youths ages 2 to 19.
Proportion of kids ages 2 to 19 classified as obese as of 2017–2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That trend is especially prominent among kids ages 2 to 5.