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Weighing Healthier Options

It's a daily battle to win obesity war
by Linda Dawson
Illinois School Board Journal, September/October 2004

Although I don't remember the exact date, I still remember the impact the school lunch program had on my life. We lived about five blocks from Lincoln Elementary School, Pontiac CCSD 429, so until the hot lunch program started, I walked home every day for lunch.

Weighing Healthier OptionsI use the word "home" loosely, however. I was one of the few in my class who had a working mom. Instead of going to my house or taking a brown-bag lunch to school like the "bus kids," I walked to the home of one of my mom's friends, Marian Patelli. Marian was a homemaker with three children, all younger than me.

I have no idea what the financial arrangements were, but every day, I spent my lunch hour at Marian's - eating and playing with the kids until it was time to go back to school. But all that changed when the hot lunch program started.

The elementary school I attended had no kitchen facilities. But beginning in fourth grade, we were bused to Central School for lunch. Mostly I remember waiting in long lines, sometimes patiently, sometimes with kids getting too rowdy, in order to wind our way past the gym and down the corridor to the cafeteria.

I still remember the look of the cafeteria, and the admonitions that we needed to drink all of our milk and clean our plates ... usually in a short amount of time ... so that we could get back on the bus and return to our classroom.

Walking to Marian's house gave me an extra four blocks of exercise every day and assured me that I would be offered something I was certain to like for lunch. Marian tried to serve things I liked. The cafeteria cooks didn't care if I liked lunch or not; I was just supposed to eat it.

I was not what I would consider a picky eater, but I did have certain things I refused to eat: liver and ham and beans are the two I remember most. Luckily, they weren't on the cafeteria menu very often.

I also was not a skinny kid. I was usually on the plump side, although as I look back on some photos of me in middle school and high school, I wasn't grossly overweight ... I was just bigger ... and taller ... than many in my class.

I remember being offered our share of pizza, hamburgers and hot dogs during the week, and macaroni and cheese or fish sticks on Friday. Even though we were mostly Protestants, the district still followed the Catholic admonition of meatless Fridays when I was in school.

But I also remember snacking at home, probably taking portions that were too large and eating wonderfully well because I was blessed (?) to have a mother who, like her mother before her, was an excellent cook. These things, more than my school lunch experience, probably contributed to my continual cycle of dieting and overeating that caused weight problems for the next 40 years.

For me, eating and dieting has been a constant war. Luckily, during the past two years, I have refined my knowledge of nutrition and portion control in order to win enough battles that I now am maintaining a healthy, normal weight. But I also know that I will continue to fight the war for the rest of my life.

As I read about the new war on childhood obesity, I wonder whether eating differently at school would have made a difference. It might have. But what was served at Marian's house and at home probably played a bigger part in the overall scheme of things.

I don't fault the cafeteria, my mom or Marian for what they fed me. They were all trying to do what they thought was best. They didn't have the advantage of nutritional information stamped on every consumable at the grocery store. And in the '50s, who knew about cholesterol?

But now that we do have such information available, everyone needs to put it to the best use.

As a mother, I've had at least one child eating a public school lunch every year but one (1995) since 1979, and I still have at least five years to go with a student in public school.

Now that he's in middle school, I'm happy that no one stands over my son anymore to insist that he eats everything on his plate. I know he doesn't always make the healthiest choices, but I see his eating patterns changing after watching for two years as my cooking habits have changed. He even ordered green pepper and lettuce on a Subway sandwich the other day! And I see the difference that having PE on a daily basis has made. He's growing up, not out, and that's good.

Examples at home may still be the best indicators of future habits, but I believe that nutrition education, daily activity and healthy options at school are necessary to reinforce my message.

In this final installment of our Weighing Healthier Options series, we have tried to address the problem from the aspect of what school boards can do through policy; what administrators can do through better practices; and what parents and the community can do through habit and lifestyle changes.

While many of us will continue to wage our own personal battles, we can all set an example that should lead to healthier lifestyles and choices for those who follow. Together, we can make a difference and win the war on childhood obesity.

Weighing Healthier Options

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