School nutrition? Why not emphasize physical fitness instead?

Jun 3, 2014, 5:54 PM | Updated: 5:54 pm

As is the case with many Americans of a certain age, I have memories of a public school cafeteria that included dour workers in hair nets scooping organic material of some sort onto plates we took to long tables, after tossing a nickel at the “milk lady” for a small carton.

Still, lunch period was a coveted part of the day. If politics entered into it at all, it might have been between my friend Tommy and me. His parents were Humphrey supporters. Mine liked Nixon. Mostly, though, we just wanted to eat fast and go play without our gym teacher’s supervision.

If you’re reading for comprehension, as my teachers would say, you would note a key word in that description, namely, “gym teacher.” That’s a person many kids no longer encounter.

Today, by contrast, there are few things as political during the school day as lunch. Kids may not concern themselves with the politics, but it took center stage in the adult world this week as first lady Michelle Obama chided Republicans for supporting a House appropriations bill that would allow schools to opt out of nutrition guidelines if their lunch programs lost money for at least six months.

Americans know by now that getting upset over a controversial bill in Washington is as useless as fretting over the patterns receivers run on a football team without a quarterback. In other words, nothing is going to pass.

But there are political points to be gained in an election year, and so Michelle Obama used the familiar language of politics — which is to say, she made her opponents look like the political ones.

“The last thing we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids’ health,” she said.

Who could argue? Except that at no time did she mention costs, which is, of course, the point of the proposal. If a school loses money on lunches for six months in a row, something is wrong. And there is evidence a few districts are doing just that. There is indeed no such thing as a free school lunch.

An Associated Press story in March examined the expensive cafeteria makeovers underway at some schools where new refrigeration systems are needed to stock fresh produce. At the Dallas Independent School District, the nation’s 14th largest, a $20 million bond issue is part of the strategy to meet the requirements. Federal money is available but doesn’t go far.

But let’s step back to my hazy black-and-white memories of lunches long ago and why we were hurrying to eat.

Looming as a backdrop to this discussion is a childhood obesity epidemic that ought to concern all Americans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that a third of all children and adolescents are overweight or obese. The cause of this, the CDC says, is a “caloric imbalance.” Kids are consuming more than they burn.

Which is why the first lady might be better off focusing on the other side of the equation. Her “Let’s move!” campaign is commendable, but it doesn’t command anywhere near the resources of the nutrition program.

A recent poll by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Harvard School of Public Health and NPR found that almost seven of every 10 parents surveyed said their child’s school provided no daily physical education. While the vast majority, 82 percent, gave their school an overall grade of A or B, the lack of P.E., as we used to call it, was a major concern.

To strangle a metaphor, school lunches and breakfasts always stir political pots. But a nation that is obsessed with sports ought to have little objection to a wholehearted emphasis on daily physical activity and play. In my day, we all knew about the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. President Eisenhower started it. It still exists, but no one fights over it in Congress.

What kids eat is important. But learning basic physical fitness is, too, and it can burn up a lot of the junk kids inevitably eat at home, if not at school. It also has the added advantage of being a lot less controversial.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.

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School nutrition? Why not emphasize physical fitness instead?