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Healthy meals a way for schools to lead by example

February 15, 2011

The late Don Schwartz, Washington County’s extension agent at the time, once remarked that America had made the commitment to cheap food.

The results, he noted, were not always positive for either farmers or consumers.

Cheap food doesn’t always amount to good food. In fact, people with lower incomes are to some degree forced to opt for cheap, highly processed food rife with sugars and simple starches, which is the reason that — although counterintuitive on its face — poverty is so closely linked to obesity.

Corn byproducts, refined flour and sugars are high in calories and low in nutrition at the consumption end, and high in subsidies on the production end. Fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, are generally low on both ends.

That’s why we applaud federal initiatives to provide healthier meals for students, even if it means school lunches will increase by a few pennies.

These are pennies that will be repaid many times over. The building blocks of adult health are cemented into place during our youth. It stands to reason that chemical, sugar and salt-laced diets have an exponential impact when we are in our formative years.

So our cheap food can lead to high medical costs in later life.

We do understand the concern of some Washington County Board of Education members that children — trained to crave sugar, salt and artificial flavors — will simply pack their own lunches or opt for less-healthy side items.

That will probably happen. But healthy food can win through osmosis. If the school menu is healthful, it will eventually become the new normal. Heaven forbid, but it is not out of the question that eating healthy food could become the cool thing to do.

Food is valuable, of course, and it should be treated as such. When food, or anything, gets to be too cheap, we lose our appreciation for it and stop putting as much thought as we should into our choices.

Trashy food will always be with us, and thankfully so. There are times when nothing but a Twinkie will do. But it’s the mindless consumption of mega-calorie foods that requires a behavioral change.

Getting kids to think about food choices is, in some ways, as important as getting them to think about reading and writing, math and science. These daily choices, simply put, will determine, at least in part, how well they feel later in life.

Ultimately, of course, it would be ideal if parents were to teach their kids about matters of diet and health, and we are still strong advocates of this. But obviously, too few students are getting the proper instruction at home. Increasingly, schools are being called in to make up for parental failings.

Healthy meals are a reasonable way for schools to lead by example. If better health can be achieved through only a dime a day, this might be the most cost-effective price hike ever enacted.

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