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20120411-LJISD-Healthy-School-Lunch-Program-012Obesity, and in particular, childhood obesity has become a real concern in national media over the past few years. A recent survey done as part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index put the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission metro area at the top of their list for fattest cities in the nation.

To combat the rising rate of obesity, the Food And Drug Administration, school districts, and other organizations are trying to take necessary steps to combat obesity and health concerns.

According to U.S. News & World Report, there are four factors to blame for a high obesity rate – “limited access to fresh fruits and veggies; a lack of safe places to exercise; a lack of health insurance; and poverty that prevents residents from buying healthy food for themselves and their families.”

Most medical and health information guides agree obesity can lead to many health problems and diseases. Some studies show that obesity can increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, asthma, headaches, sleep apnea and other major health concerns.

In 2011, the United States Food and Drug Administration brought the new MyPlate design that shows half of a plate with fruits and vegetables and the other half with grains and proteins, and a serving of low fat dairy. Vegetables and grains have larger portions on the MyPlate.

20120413_myplate_green500This was a change from the Food Pyramid that was updated in 2005 that included grains, vegetables, fruit, milk and meat and beans. Originally measured by how many servings you should have each day when it first rolled out in 1992, the 2005 MyPyramid measured food by cups and ounces and had a different width to illustrate the proportion you should eat compared with the other food groups.

Both the 2005 MyPyramid and MyPlate recommend moderate physical activity. The 2005 MyPyramid shows this by illustrating a person climbing stairs on one side of the pyramid.

In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama launched a campaign titled Let’s Move! to help combat childhood obesity. The program focuses on providing education to parents, getting healthier food in schools, helping children become more physically active, and making healthier foods more accessible and cheaper.

On the Let’s Move! Website, Obama says everyone has a role to play in reducing childhood obesity.

Since the program’s inception, American food manufacturers have cuts calories from their products, stores have expanded to sell fresh food, restaurant chains are offering healthier options, and cities are providing more parks, says Obama in an opinion piece that was published earlier this month.

Obama said more needs to be done, including changes at schools.

20120413-MyPyramidFoodRecent federal laws require schools to create wellness policies that address all foods available on campus, as well as nutrition education and physical activity.

Schools nationwide have taken steps to reduce fat content in foods that are served in their cafeterias. New regulations have been passed to ensure schools are serving healthier foods containing less fat as well.

The Mission Consolidated Independent School District is actively involved in trying to address the health and healthy eating habits of its student’s daily, said Craig Verley, director of public relations and marketing.

Verley said the Child Nutrition Program plays a major role in the district through the nutritional meals that are provided.

All of the district’s meals must meet strict dietary guidelines set by the state and federal government. Food service employees are always looking for creative ways to introduce students to foods the students might be unfamiliar with, explained Verley.

“This is done in a way to not just introduce them to the foods,” he said, “but hopefully, let them realize they are actually good to eat.”

Verley said salads are quickly becoming one of the more popular choices in the lunch lines.

20120413-LJISD-Healthy-School-Lunch-Program-003The Child Nutrition Program is also a resource for teachers and parent meetings regarding the importance of a healthy diet, said Verley. The school district includes lessons on healthy lifestyle choices to all ages at all of the district’s schools. Several of the schools host community health fairs as well. The school nurses also help out by providing annual health screenings and educating students and parents about the importance of physical exercise.

MCISD also has a School Health Advisory Committee. The committee is made up of parents and community members that meet several times a year to discuss health related issues.

The school district is doing what they can, with the resources they have, said Verley, to educate students and parents about the importance of healthy lifestyles and the daily choices made that impact their health.

The La Joya Independent School District is also a part of the School Nutrition Association that uses the slogan “Growing healthy children in our school.”

This school nutrition program helps the district provide meals that are nutritious and balanced with limited calories from fat and saturated fat. The meals also provide students with the proper amounts of fruit, vegetables, dairy, protein and grains, to help them maintain a healthy weight.

The district involves administrators to help influence a healthy school environment by modeling to students the value of a nutritious meal.

LJISD also holds health and wellness fairs like MCISD that focus on screenings and education.

As far as their lunch program goes, the district has made their lunches and menus reflect the new federal laws.

20120411-LJISD-Healthy-School-Lunch-Program-001Cynthia Sanchez, the food service director at Sharyland Independent School District, said the laws have changed again and the new laws will be effective this coming school year. One new regulation is to serve at least a half-cup of fruit daily to the students. New guidelines were also implemented last year at the school district.

Some of the more recent guidelines have been to provide healthier milk alternatives and healthier food in general with low fat.

The school district offers students skim and low-fat white milk, as well as vegetables in different colors that are more nutrient dense and less starchy. Sanchez said they have not served corn – a starchy vegetable – at all this year. Another item the school district uses is whole grain pastas.

Sanchez explained she tries to expose students to different types of foods so they can get used to the flavors. She added there are always plenty of fruits and vegetables served every day.

SISD also has a health advisory committee and gets principals involved with what kinds of foods are available at their campuses. Part of their guidelines for student nutrition includes a commitment to nutrition and physical activity, quality school meals, offering other healthy food options like healthy snack alternatives, pleasant eating experience, and nutrition education.

The school district has a suggested list of healthy food choices to have for parties, celebrations, and other special events and a list of foods to avoid like foods high in fat, sugar and sodium. Also part of the school nutrition guidelines, students are not allowed to have any foods or beverages not permitted by the school. The school district has three days where items of minimal nutritional value may be consumed – Christmas holiday celebration, Valentine’s Day, and end of school celebrations.

20120411-LJISD-Healthy-School-Lunch-Program-004The school district, with the help of nurses, also provides nutrition education to students. Schools periodically have the school nurse teach students about the nutritious value of certain foods and introduce the new MyPlate. At the end of the presentations, a sample of a food item will be offered to the students. At a recent presentation, the students were able to taste Asian pears, a fruit most students would not normally have, said Sanchez.

Sanchez said the school also uses the Child Nutrition Program’s resources to provide students with materials that discuss healthy foods and healthier lifestyles. There are at least three websites that are used for these types of educational resources, said Sanchez. These tools are used in providing lessons to the students, said Sanchez.

Sanchez, also a registered dietician, said that she and her assistant, also a registered dietician, focus on the health of the food that is served, while the school nurses focus on the wellness of the students. The nurses are very active in educating the students, said Sanchez.

Ultimately, local school district administrators said their goal is that the healthy lifestyle education being shared is being taken home.

“The truth is, the schools are only one piece of the puzzle,” said Verley.

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