By Martha Barksdale

One of the most important lessons school children learn this year may not be taught in the classroom – it will come from the foods the children feast on in the school lunchroom, foods that can either help or harm them.


Georgia ranks third in the nation in the percentage of overweight and obese children and teens. Nearly 40 percent of the school-age population is too heavy, putting them at risk for many harmful conditions and diseases.


Even if obesity is not a problem, unhealthy eating is. Children who consume unhealthy foods may be lethargic and not open to learning. And no teacher wants to deal with a classroom full of kids who are hopped up on sugary snacks.


School nutrition programs must follow federal guidelines regarding school breakfast and lunch and after-school snack programs. The offerings must be consistent with federal dietary recommendations. Fat intake is monitored and fresh fruits and vegetables are emphasized. Even items sold and served outside the cafeteria should complement the federal guidelines. The School Nutrition Association says local school districts should develop standards for parties and celebrations, too.


The City of Atlanta Public Schools go beyond the federal nutrition requirements. All sandwiches are made with 100 percent whole wheat bread, and pasta served with meat sauce is always 100 percent whole wheat. All rice is brown rice. Hot dogs are made with turkey, not pork. The low-fat milk that is served is free of antibiotics and synthetic hormones. Four fresh fruits and vegetables are offered every day including carrot and celery sticks, broccoli florets, oranges, apples and bananas.


The one-size fits all school cafeteria meal is a thing of the past. Both Atlanta and City of Decatur students can choose between a hot meal or a salad every day. Decatur students can also enjoy a healthy sack lunch if they desire. Atlanta public school students have four entree choices every day, one of which is always vegetarian. If the child wants to bring lunch from home, the options for healthy eating are many.


Whole Foods is making it easier for children and their parents to come up with healthy snacks and lunches. Regular “Healthy, Wealthy and Wise” store tours can serve as an introduction to nutritious items. Last month, Dr. Sylvia Morris, an instructor at the Emory School of Medicine, presented a program on healthy food choices for children and parents at the Whole Foods on Ponce de Leon.


On Saturday Sept. 12, kids and parents can taste a variety of delicious, healthy lunchbox and snack options during School Lunch Revolution, a program scheduled for the Whole Foods Ponce de Leon store. From 1 to 5 p.m., options to the highly processed foods that are standard lunchtime fare will be presented, said Lesley Sifford, the marketing team leader at the Ponce store.


Sifford said kids love to be a part of healthy meal planning.  “I just saw a little boy asking his mom to buy an eggplant today!” she reported. “We have demos going on in the store each day, and this is a great way for kids and parents to try products that may be new to the store, something they haven’t tried before, or a new recipe with a familiar product.  A lot of kids find things they like in the store this way,” Sifford said.


The Whole Foods Web site, www.wholefoodsmarket.com, contains lots of back-to-school information, including economical lunch menu ideas and even suggestions for young vegetarians. Remember, vegetarian doesn’t automatically mean healthy. Potato chips and candy bars are vegetarian foods.


For more ideas, The Whole Deal, Whole Foods’ monthly newsletter is “chock full of ideas for lunchbox fillers, after school snacks, easy dinners and more to help your family make a healthy transition back to school,” Sifford said.


Publix supermarket’s Web site has numerous articles and options in its Greenwise section on how to pack a nutritious school lunch. An important point from Publix is to keep child’s lunch out of the trash, by including the child in the decision process. www.publix.com/wellness.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.