You can lead children to a healthy meal but you cant make them eat it.
Thats the quandary facing any school that attempts to up the nutritional value of its cafeteria fare. Nonetheless, schools that do take on that monumental challenge deserve special credit.
And Fort Mills elementary schools recently got some well-earned credit for efforts to serve children better food while also teaching them the benefits of exercise and a healthy lifestyle. Each of the seven schools received a HealthierUS Schools bronze award and $500 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, joining nearly 4,800 schools nationwide that are trying to introduce meals that voluntarily exceed federal nutrition requirements.
No other school in York, Chester or Lancaster counties has received the award.
The HealthierUS Schools Challenge was started in 2004 to address an epidemic of childhood obesity, which, in turn, has contributed to a rise in chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. The program has been incorporated into Lets Move!, first lady Michelle Obamas health and fitness campaign for children.
At the Fort Mill elementary schools, the effort extends well beyond the cafeteria. Each school has a food garden, which teachers incorporate into lessons about nutrition. And a dietician teaches children about healthy lifestyle choices.
School clubs in archery, running and dancing encourage exercise. A Boosterthon Fun Run raises money by asking parents to pledge dollars for each lap their children run. And, instead of selling the traditional cookies and candy to raise money, students do fitness lessons.
But as well intentioned as the program is, persuading students to eat healthier lunches remains a challenge. Roland Cabading, Fort Mill schools food service director, concedes that several food failures have ended up in the trash can.
Also, since the menus changed, the percentage of students buying lunch dropped from about 60 percent across the district to 43 percent. The district had to offer more pizza and chicken nuggets in the last months of the year to break even.
But theres no turning back. For one thing, federal rules now require schools to double the fruits and vegetables served, increase whole grains, serve only low fat or fat-free milk and limit trans fats.
But beyond that, the district is committed to changing students eating habits. And there are signs of progress, with children who buy lunch eating healthier entrees and more fruits and vegetables
Its a difficult challenge. Schools have to contend with the fact that many children dont get especially healthy meals at home where their tastes are molded.
And even if students are getting healthy lunches at school, they still are likely to indulge in fast food and other highly processed foods by choice when theyre not in school. Ultimately, then, changing eating habits must include not only influencing students choices at school but also training whole families to eat healthier all the time.
Nonetheless, these Fort Mill schools are providing a valuable service. They are exposing children at an early age to foods that not only are healthier but, if prepared well, also are tastier than much of the glop that children often are served in the school cafeteria.
It is not necessarily a given that children always will prefer a gummy pre-fab pizza made with processed cheese to, say, a chicken wrap with fresh veggies.
Teaching children to like healthier food isnt easy, but we commend Fort Mill school officials for trying. Maybe some day, the kids who go on to lead fuller lives as a result will thank them for it.