As a mom and teacher, I am challenged again and again by the amount of junk food in our nation's schools. Like all parents, I want my child to be healthy, happy and successful.
The same is true for teachers. We're in it for the kids; our goal is to help them thrive. From both sides of the fence, I do the best I can with the time and resources I have, but I need help, and I expect schools to back my efforts.
Whether we're relying on the school lunch or brown-bagging it, parents want to make sure our kids get a good, nutritious meal. Yet often the choices we make for kids can't compete against what the vending machines and à la carte lines have to offer. Should we really be surprised if our third-graders use their milk money to buy a cleverly-branded sugary drink?
When I taught in elementary and middle schools in San Bernardino, I often struggled to keep students focused after lunch. Every day, I battled the afternoon slump brought on by the chips, cookies, soda and other empty calories kids had consumed before class.
There's simply no good reason to sell unhealthy fare in our schools. It undermines parents' efforts to raise healthy kids, makes it harder for teachers to do their jobs well, and contributes to an obesity epidemic that threatens the health of more than 23.5 million children and teens.
About 40 percent of students buy and eat one or more snacks at school, and almost 70 percent buy and consume at least one sugary drink. One report found that students consume almost 400 billion calories from junk foods sold in our nation's schools each year. These numbers are appalling; it shouldn't have to be this way.
Thankfully, here in California, our schools tell a different story. My daughter was in third grade in 2007 when California set limits for the calories, fat and sugar content of school snacks. This law, and the 2009 law that banned some sugary drinks in our state's high schools, helped my daughter and her peers recognize the importance of healthy eating because our schools started to reinforce what so many parents are doing at home.
Compared with many other states, California's nutrition standards for school snacks and drinks are quite strong. But the state does allow middle and high schools to sell sugary sports drinks, and all public schools can sell 2 percent milk, as opposed to low-fat options like 1 percent or skim. Worse yet are the states that offer kids little or no protection against the widespread availability of junk foods and unhealthy drinks at school.
This may change soon, however, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed new national standards for school snacks and drinks, which have not been updated since 1979. If USDA issues strong final standards, it will help ensure that kids have healthy choices in the vending machines, à la carte lines and stores available at school no matter where they live. Such standards will help complement the new nutrition standards for school meals that went into effect in fall 2012.
These standards support the efforts of parents and the ability of kids to learn, and there are other important benefits as well. Restricting sales of unhealthy fare has also been shown to improve children's diets, reduce weight gain, and even increase school food service revenues.
Improving school foods won't solve all the problems we face as parents and teachers, but it's a critical step in improving the health of this generation and those to come. We should tell USDA we support their efforts and encourage schools to stand with us for healthy kids.
Mikki Cichocki, who is assigned to youth services in San Bernardino City Unified School District, is secretary-treasurer of the California Teachers Association.