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Healthy School Meals Bill Gets Rave Reviews

James Wright | 4/2/2010, 11:30 a.m.

A bill in the D.C. Council that would urge District public schools to improve the diets of students and support healthy lifestyles has been praised as being the right legislation during a time when childhood obesity has reached an all time high.

D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and D.C. Council Chair Vincent Gray (D) have co-sponsored the €Healthy School Act of 2009.€ The bill would require that school meals, and in the case of children who are enrolled in after-school programs, consist of foods high in nutrients to help fight diseases that could possibly carry over into adulthood.

Cheh, who is the chair of the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment and Gray, who chairs the Committee of the Whole, convened a joint hearing on the bill, Fri., March 26.

€We have made an enormous effort to reform education in D.C.,€ Cheh said.

€We need to improve the nutritional, health and wellness of the students. We are feeding students breakfast, lunch and those in after-school programs, dinner.€

Cheh said that it€s important that children receive nutritional meals because they spend the majority of their days in school.

€The children are in our care,€ she said.

The Ward 3 council member quoted statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which indicate that 18 percent of D.C. students are obese and 35 percent are overweight. She noted a U.S. Surgeon General€s study that stated that children who are obese tend to grow up and suffer from medical conditions that include diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and cancer.

Cheh, 59, also said that economic status contributes to childhood obesity. Thirty two percent of District children live in poverty and of that number, 19.2 percent live in abject poverty which includes homelessness or children who have no family support. Asthma, she said, afflicts 1 in 6 children in the District.

In an effort to promote the bill, she has visited schools throughout the city, but said she experienced an epiphany at Kimball Elementary School in Southeast.
€We had a chef from the D.C. Kitchen to come by and cook squash soup,€ she said.

€Before he did, he asked the kids had any of them ever had squash soup and they said no. He [made the soup] and they kept coming for seconds and thirds.€

Cheh learned a thing or two about children€s palates that day, she said, €if you cook it, they will eat it.€

Kimball Elementary students Deazon Gardner and Tamara Robinson joined dozens of individuals who rallied in favor of the bill. The youngsters participate in a program that encourages healthy eating and promotes school gardens.

Tamara, 8, said that there was far too much salt in the school cafeteria food and that the vegetables were not properly cooked while Deazon, 9, said that it was fun to learn how to grow their own food.

€Our food in the cafeteria is so bad,€ Tamara, a third grader, said €that I do not eat at all and sometimes I go hungry.€

Basically, the bill would make school meals healthier and more nutritious; increase the amount of local and fresh fruits and vegetables served in schools; increase exercise and physical activity in the schools; promote school gardens, recycling, energy reduction and other green initiatives.

D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) supports Cheh€s efforts. He said that the legislation will begin to address childhood obesity.

€I have gone to some schools and the food is awful,€ he said.

€It does not taste good; it is full of sugar and glucose.€

Barry, 73, said that childhood obesity and obesity within the general population is problematic because we [Americans] are €overfed, overweight and overindulgent.€

€We need to set standards for our children€s food,€ the former four-term mayor said.

Trained as a chemist, Barry said that the type of food that people eat affects the body.

€It takes 72 hours for beef to digest in the body,€ he said.

€It only takes five hours for fruits and vegetables. People eat the wrong kinds of food.€