Child Nutrition employees in Lincoln County are hopeful that new regulations for what students are putting on their trays in local cafeterias, and programs such as N.C. Farm to School will help decrease, or at least slow down, the child obesity rate in the county.
“Childhood obesity is a national epidemic,” county Child Nutrition Director Byron Sackett told the Times-News on Tuesday. “Our biggest challenge is that kids won’t eat anything that doesn’t look like fast food.”
The National Conference of State Legislatures cited a 2007 survey administered by the Childhood Obesity Action Network that estimated 33.5 percent of children in the state between the ages of 10 and 17 to be obese.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention suggests various factors that promote child obesity, the majority of which are found on school campuses. Lack of quality and amount of physical activity, advertising of unhealthy products and having drinks high in sugar content in schools are just a few on the list.
“We’re not the ones to blame here; lack of exercise and what these kids are eating after school are just as important,” Sackett said. “We have kids starting Kindergarten who are already overweight.”
What children do after the bell rings falls on the parents, said Ted Fogleman, assistant director of the food distribution division of N.C. Dept of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Programs like Fuel up to Play 60 focus on getting children to be more active, put down the electronics and climb a tree instead. Having these options in place, and making moves like getting rid of every fryer in county cafeterias, help the area “stay ahead of the curve.”
In January, new regulations were set by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act – a mandate that changes what children are eating during lunchtime.
Child Nutrition Employee Carolyn Thackston isn’t stressing about the changes, and thinks the county is in good shape for what’s to come.
This isn’t a panic situation, we’ve been slowly moving in this direction for the last 12 years, Thackston said.
Along with pushing for kids to eat more leafy greens, officials are promoting milk consumption by only offering milk at lunchtime at elementary schools – something that may help the students later in life.
From birth to13 years old, children are investing in their “bone bank” – establishing bone density that will remain with them the rest their lives, Sackett said.
Low fat and fat-free milk, and wheat crusted-Dominos pizzas are a few of the steps the child nutrition team have taken to get students to enjoy healthier options.
Once in the lunch line, students were allowed to put five components on their trays, and had the choice of selecting either a fruit or a vegetable. Now, under the new law, they will be required to choose a fruit and a vegetable, which nutrition officials fear will increase waste rather than promote healthier eating habits.
“We’re going to be fattening the trash cans of America,” Sackett said. “If they don’t want the fruit, it will just get wasted and thrown away.”
In hopes of reducing waste, Sackett and his team will be doing some research over the summer, looking into what healthy foods county kids will want to see at lunch.
Along with meeting the fruit and vegetable requirements, more criteria have to be met. A certain number of vegetables and fruits of particular colors will have to be represented to satisfy the new law– making the carrot and sweet potato farmers of North Carolina happy, Sackett joked.
Watermelon, kiwi, strawberries and other healthy choices the students are grabbing come from local farms across the state, through the N.C. Farm to School program.
The program sends two shipments to 117 public schools around the state, twice a month. How the cases are rationed is up to administrators at each school.
The organization was created in 1997 by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in hopes of benefiting both students and farmers in the state.
Providing close-to-home produce that keeps jobs local while enriching the students’ diets keeps Lincoln County in partnership with the group.
“Supporting local farmers is so important; gives the children opportunities to eat fresh fruit from farms in the state,” Sackett said.
To go along with what the children are eating, teachers use corresponding curriculum in their classrooms for younger students to understand where their food comes from.
Vegetable-inspired dinosaurs, like Cabbage-saurus and the Brocc-adactyl, help teach students about the importance of eating healthy.
Lincoln County has been incorporating Farm to School in classrooms for three years, and are continuing to enjoy produce and lessons the group provides.
Of the $300,000 allotment the USDA gave the Child Nutrition Department recently, $60,000 was given to the program. Other contributors include Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, which recently invested $1.2 million.
The obesity rate in the county may not be decreasing any time soon, but Sackett and his team are hopeful their efforts will “change the eating habits of future generations.”