Between spending more time in front of a computer than running around outside and eating more processed than whole foods, kids have begun to gain weight at an alarming rate. According to the 2009 Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, approximately 17 percent of children and adolescents between the ages of two and 19 are obese--and the prevalence of obesity among children and adolescents has nearly tripled over the last 30 years. While the social implications of childhood obesity can be brutal, the health repercussions are just as frightening. Obese children are at elevated risk of:

  • Breathing problems, including asthma and sleep apnea
  • Glucose intolerance, insulin resistance, and type-2 diabetes
  • Fatty liver, gallstones, and heartburn
  • High blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • Heart disease

A preventable contributor of childhood obesity is the poor quality of school lunches. Over the years, budget restrictions and rising costs of produce and fresh ingredients have caused many schools to turn to mass-produced processed foods. Until recently, most school lunches consisted of foods that were low in nutritional value and high in fat, sodium, and sugar.

Rethinking the Way Kids Eat
Recognizing the pressing need for a change in school lunch menus, public figures such as Michelle Obama and Jamie Oliver stepped forward to raise funds and awareness for better food in school cafeterias. Their campaigns call for a reduction in the fat, sugar, and salt content in school foods, as well as an increase in the number of fruits and vegetables served. In addition, they've helped make alternatives to dairy milk, like soymilk and bottled water, available into many school lunchrooms.

While the activism of public figures has definitely helped to publicize and expedite school lunch improvement, grass roots efforts are still necessary to ensure that these changes are successfully implemented in all of our schools. Here are some ways that you can get involved in school lunch reform.

1. Educate yourself.
Find out what your child's school is serving for lunch and request a copy of the nutrition labels. It may seem a bit extreme, but if no one is following up on the quality of cafeteria food, there's less incentive for schools to keep it up to par. Another way to get more information about what's ending up on lunch trays is to eat in the cafeteria yourself. If you're volunteering in your child's classroom or speaking for career day, stick around for lunch to see if it's something nutritious.

2. Pave the way.
It's true that sometimes the only way to get something done is to do it yourself. If you think your child's school would benefit from an on-site vegetable garden or healthier menu items, volunteer your time to get these projects started.

3. Educate school staff.
School staff and faculty members are flooded with parent complaints and suggestions on a daily basis. Rather than add another one to the suggestion box, do the work for them by putting together an organized list of existing school lunch improvement programs that could be easily implemented. One such program is the "Salad Bar Project," an initiative sponsored by Whole Foods that provides grants for schools so that they can offer healthy salad bar options to students.

While getting actively involved in school lunch reform may initially make you feel like an overzealous PTA parent, keep in mind that your efforts could ultimately improve the health and save the lives of hundreds of children. Childhood obesity is an epidemic and children need parents to serve as activists for their well-being. Make healthy school lunches a priority in your community and keep your kids strong and fit.