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Back to school with good food

Back to school with good food

For the week of Aug. 15, 2016

Back to school with good food

By John Schlageck, Kansas Farm Bureau

With school starting across Kansas this unfortunately can mean the return of unhealthy lunches which can certainly be labeled as fast food, most of which come to schools shipped in already prepared packaging. If you have or have had children in school, you know what I mean.

Beanie weenies, chicken nuggets, high-carb mac and cheese, fried snacks and sugary soft drinks are popular fare served at school cafeterias across the Wheat State. Still, school lunch programs can play a key role in teaching and reinforcing healthy eating behaviors by integrating activities like on-site gardens, nutrition education, locally sourced foods and endeavors that affirm the value of mealtimes.

You don’t have to have eagle eyes to see this nation has a problem with obesity and that challenge has spread to this country’s youngsters. Did you know approximately 17 percent of U.S. children and adolescents aged 2-19 are obese, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control? That’s nearly triple the amount in 1980.

It’s time we turn this train around. Initiatives that connect our youth to fresh, healthy foods, a healthy lifestyle with plenty of exercise and healthy eating habits will go a long way toward changing this obesity endemic.

What’s happening here may seem more difficult than it really is. Looking back in our not too distant past, many Americans ate a balanced diet consisting of plenty of fruits, vegetables, grains and protein. Eating healthy isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible either. It does take discipline, restraint and the willingness to make life-altering changes in what have become bad-choice, unhealthy eating habits.

What better place to begin than with the future of our youngsters? Talk about an idealistic endeavor.

Let’s begin with one of the most important steps – connecting local farmers to schools. In communities across Kansas, local food producers provide beef, lamb, pork, poultry, fruits, grains and vegetables at local markets or directly from their farms.

Why can’t they provide farm-fresh foods for our school children?

Well this is happening – and right here in Kansas. In Clark County in southwestern Kansas, local stockmen donate cattle to help feed students at Ashland High School. This generous contribution is known as the USD 220 beef program.

Between 15 and 20 livestock producers pledged to provide beef for this new program. With this many contributors, each producer donates one animal every two years.

This new strategy, allows the school district hopes to significantly reduce its food costs, engage the community, reward livestock producers and provide for its students.

Another program I recently read about includes the state of Vermont. Here a successful farm to school movement throughout the last 10 years has aided school lunch programs from state money. Nearly 60 percent of the schools have participated. Children of Vermont have benefited with farm-fresh foods and local farmers have expanded their business into a market worth more than $40 million.

School gardens can provide hands-on opportunities for children to cultivate and grow their own food. In high poverty areas of north Texas, school gardens not only nurture healthy lifestyles and respect for the environment, they can also provide academic achievement through the primary experiences of gardening.

Nutritional education should be a part of every public school in this country. So funding is tight. That’s a given. What if we engaged professional volunteers to run a broad range of topics that address nutrition?

You know, farmers and ranchers, agri-business types and maybe even people with nutritional backgrounds.

Our goal should be to feed our children while they are in school, but feed them with nutritious meals that will help them grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted adults. It’s time to cut back on a diet that focuses on processed foods delivered in boxes.

Children spend seven to eight hours nine to 10 months out of every year in schools across our nation. These same schools have our children under their wing more time than we as parents and grandparents during each day school is in session. Let’s reverse this trend of snacking and eating less than nutritious foods in our school systems.

Your children, grandchildren and mine deserve the best and healthiest foods available – fresh, locally produced and made from scratch served up at their schools.

John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.

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