The No. 1 nutrition problem for children in this country is not obesity, it’s undernourishment, says registered dietician Dayle Hayes.
Hayes isn’t ignoring the fact that 17 percent of American children and adolescents are obese. Nor is she ignoring that the obesity rate among kids and teens has tripled in a single generation.
But, she said, the number of children and teens who are not receiving enough nutrients is horrifying. About 70 percent of teen boys and 90 percent of teen girls are not getting enough calcium. Children, and especially teens, are also deficient in vitamins A, C, D and E as well as potassium, dietary fiber, magnesium and phosphorus, she said.
“Children in America are overweight and undernourished,” Hayes said.
When talking about children’s nutrition or weight, it’s common to try to place blame, Hayes said. Some schools serve fatty, unhealthy foods. Parents aren’t taking responsibility for what their kids eat at home. Fast food restaurants don’t offer healthy options. Television advertisements promote unhealthy eating habits and behaviors.
“We all have to stop pointing fingers and come together to figure out how to raise healthier kids,” Hayes said.
Hayes, a nationally known nutrition expert, spoke Tuesday morning about nutrition and school lunches to a couple hundred people attending the annual Washington School Nutrition Association meeting in Vancouver.
Schools across the state and country are doing some things right, Hayes said.
For example, more school districts are moving back to scratch cooking. They’re using locally grown food and preparing more of the meals themselves as opposed to serving processed foods that contain more sugar and fat, Hayes said.
Districts that have their own nutrition program — such as Vancouver Public Schools — and those that contract with companies such as Sodexo and Chartwells for meal service — such as the Battle Ground, Camas and Evergreen districts — can have quality programs that offer healthy, nutritious meals to kids, Hayes said.
The key, she said, is that school officials and parents hold the food service programs accountable. Demand to have nutritional information about meals. Require excellent meals as opposed to mediocre meals, she said.
“It’s perfectly possible to have either type of program be very successful,” she said.
Hayes also talked about ways school districts can improve their programs.
Serving breakfast in the classroom, for example, helps kids get more nutrients. A bowl of whole-grain cereal, fruit and milk contain many of the essential nutrients kids aren’t getting enough of.
“Being at school without breakfast is like trying to drive your car without gas,” Hayes said. “It doesn’t work.”
That’s a message officials at one local district have heard.
Beginning this fall, three Evergreen elementary schools will provide all children breakfast in the classroom at no cost. Crestline, Silver Star and Burton were selected for the program because of their high numbers of children qualifying for free and reduced meals, said Karen Steinhardt, the district’s food services manager.
“We all know breakfast is the most important meal,” Steinhardt said. “If we’re going to have our students learn and test well, it behooves us to provide them with a healthy, nutritious breakfast.”
Hayes offered additional advice for improvements.
Districts need to scrutinize the entire environment of their schools, from vending machine products to alternatives offered in the cafeterias. And schools need to provide kids, especially younger students, with enough time to eat their lunches, Hayes said.
Without addressing those issues, it doesn’t matter how healthful school lunches are, she said.
“It’s not nutrition until it’s in the kid,” Hayes said. “It’s not about the nutritional value until the kid eats it.”