Sunday, March 28, 2010

Have lunch with First Lady Michelle Obama and you’ll never look at broccoli the same way again.

The following appeared as a Guest Commentary in the March 25, 2010 edition of the Lexington Minuteman.  (Photo of First Lady Michelle Obama by Mary Ann Stewart).

I was one of three members of the Massachusetts Parent Teacher Association who attended the National PTA Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, DC, March 9-11. We lobbied the Massachusetts congressional delegation to promote family engagement standards in the reauthorization of Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, and Child Nutrition Act.

Mrs. Obama was keynote speaker at lunch on Wednesday. Her topic was the national childhood obesity crisis and her new initiative, Let's Move, which promotes child nutrition and physical activity.

Listening to her brought back memories from my childhood.

I walked to and from school every day, ran around at recess and gym, and played in the neighborhood for hours after school until dinner. Most days, my family had dinner together. Children ate what parents served. We had dessert only on special occasions.

But times have changed. And now I'm a parent of three children. My husband and I both work. We try to find balance, but the economy and pace of the world has us stressed and challenged. I'm the first to acknowledge that convenience and necessity have won out over healthy habits at times.

In response to testing demands, schools have narrowed curriculum and reduced or eliminated recess and gym. The typical lunch is heavy with calories and fat. Children spend more time sitting in front of TV, playing video games, or surfing the 'net - sedentary habits exposing them to 40,000 advertisements each year, many for unhealthy foods and drinks. Here in Lexington, our record is probably better than most, but could stand improving. Our school cafeterias serve healthier meals, but over the years we have reduced students' gym and recess time.

Fittingly, if the governor signs the bill that the state legislature passed in January, we will not see unhealthy foods and sugary drinks in our public schools. Foods and beverages that do not meet nutrition standards and are not part of federal meal programs would be banned. The law would eliminate fried foods. It would encourage local farm-to-school programs that could double the amount of fresh vegetables children get in school. It would provide continuing education for school nurses and require instruction in nutrition and exercise in schools.

Studies show that proper nutrition and exercise improves school attendance, learning, behavior, and productivity. Thousands of children in Massachusetts depend on federal child nutrition programs to provide up to one-half of their nutrient intake per day. The funding for school meals go directly to the schools - not to students - and provide the support for these programs. School meal reimbursements have fallen far behind costs and are inadequate to maintain the high-quality nutrition standards established in law. Regulations governing school meals programs should reflect current science and health trends to better address the health and wellness needs of all children.

The 2007 Nutrition Act required schools to develop a wellness policy. That was a good start. Along with nutrition education, we need more opportunities for physical activity at every grade level and opportunities to engage families in the policy-making process.

My trip to Washington impressed upon me the need for more funding for school nutrition and meal programs. Mrs. Obama's goal of reducing childhood obesity within a generation is ambitious, requiring school support and broad family and community support. There is wisdom in these initiatives; please express your support.

Mary Ann Stewart is a member of Lexington's School Committee. In April she becomes the 34th State President of the Massachusetts PTA. The opinions expressed here are her own and do not reflect those of the Lexington Public School Department or of the School Committee.