National School Lunch Week might not sound like something your hospital should get involved with. But in some communities, hospitals are getting involved this week by sending nutritionists into cafeterias and classrooms to offer advice on meals that are not only good for kids, but that look and taste great, too.
As hospitals tackle population health, they’re establishing partnerships with other local institutions — schools, religious organizations and the like — to break down social barriers to community wellness. Popular tactics include improving access to fruits and vegetables via voucher programs with local grocers; sponsoring farmers markets and community gardens; educating folks about the perils of too much sugar, sodium and fats; and offering cooking and fitness classes.
The topic of healthful eating has proved a ticklish one when I’ve written about it in the past. Some readers have chided me that you can’t legislate behaviors. And several have written to say that while they applaud First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to improve meals for children, she overlooks the fact that kids are turned off by anything that smacks of “healthy.” One hospital nurse wrote that she often finds her own kids and their friends pigging out on snack food after school because they turned up their noses at their cafeteria’s new, more nutritious menu items.
On the other hand, a nutritionist at a hospital in South Carolina wrote that when she goes into schools, students are excited to sample unfamiliar foods and try out new recipes — but only when it’s done in an engaging, compelling manner. “You can’t just nag and say, ‘Eat your vegetables,’" she advises. “You’ve got to make good eating an adventure. And most of all, you’ve got to make their taste buds happy.”
Cafeteria staff in schools and hospitals also have found that people are more apt to make better choices when they place those items in prominent spots and display them attractively.
Let’s face it, too many American kids are just too darn fat. And they will suffer with all kinds of chronic ailments as they grow up and throughout their adult lives. Whatever we can do now to spare them that fate is not a threat to their individual liberties. Like all the other lessons we impart at home, in school, in the hospital and physician’s office, it’s a compassionate investment in their futures, and in our country’s.