It's no secret that obesity has contributed mightily to early deaths and soaring health care costs in the United States.
By eating smaller portions and healthy foods, Americans can significantly reduce the risks for diabetes, heart disease and strokes — and live longer.
Recognizing these facts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made sweeping changes to the federally subsidized national school lunch program last year.
New guidelines set limits on calories and salt, and phased in more whole grains. Schools participating in the program were required to offer at least one vegetable at lunch and meet other nutrition requirements.
Old favorites were made with new recipes. For example, pizza — who doesn't love it? — was made healthier with whole-wheat crust and low-fat cheese.
When the changes were announced, the anti-government crowd cried, "Nanny state!" and said the USDA shouldn't dictate what their kids ate. Officials at many schools said the new rules were difficult to follow and inflated the cost of meals.
But there are early signs that these changes are working.
Last month, the USDA reported that only 524 schools out of about 100,000 had dropped out of the national lunch program. And on Thursday, a study by the University of California's Atkins Center for Weight and Health indicated that students and parents approve of the changes.
The report examined 10 California school districts that are providing students with more healthy choices. Among the districts studied were four in the San Joaquin Valley: Arvin Union, Ceres Unified, Earlimart and Lamont.
The study, which was funded by the California Endowment, found that nearly 90% of students say they liked at least some of the meal options. Eighty-four percent of parents surveyed approved of the new standards.
"When the new school meal standards took effect one year ago, many skeptics predicted that students would reject the healthier options," researcher Michelle Ross said in a statement released Thursday. "This simply isn't happening — at least not in the 10 districts we studied.
"Our research shows great progress, but there's still room for improvement."
The report also showed that a little imagination goes a long way in putting students on the path to healthy outcomes. Among the more popular initiatives undertaken by the schools: cooking from scratch, enlisting youth leaders as "taste-testers," and creating fruit and vegetable "of the month" programs.
Sometimes our natural resistance to change makes us suspicious or hypercritical of new efforts.
We encourage school officials to tell the USDA what does — and doesn't work — and to team up to make school meals more appealing and healthy.
We also look forward to the day that Americans of all ages are winning the battle against obesity.
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