EDITORIAL: What’s for dinner, coach?

WHERE SHOULD WE DRAW the line when it comes to the responsibility schools have to protect our kids from harm? Safer buses, Internet content filters, efforts to reduce bullying, better equipment for sports teams? Sure, sure. But no more Happy Meals? You can almost see the tears streaking the greasepaint on Ronald McDonald’s cheeks.
After all, it’s the job of parents to determine what kids eat (to the extent parents ever know all the things their kids consume). What business is it of the school if a kid wants to eat a burger, fries and a shake while under the care of school officials? Isn’t that a decision best left to parents?
A group of parents confronted just these questions when Neil Howard, the Taconic Hills Central School District superintendent recently decided to end the practice of district buses rolling up to fast food restaurants on the way home from games outside the district. A petition signed by 300 parents said the district had, in effect, told them that they “are unable to make these decisions for themselves.”
If Mr. Howard had suggested that the district impose nutritional value standards on the items kids bring with them to eat–a kind of Food Police intrusion of students’ bag lunches–that would warrant outrage. But all he did was limit a special activity available only to certain groups of students; in this case the change mainly affects kids who are members of interscholastic teams.
So here’s another question that wasn’t addressed in the petition: What role should public schools play in helping protect students from epidemics?
Seems like a no-brainer. Taxpayers expect schools will take reasonable efforts to prevent conditions that threaten students with serious illness or even death, even if the effects play out over years not days.
As strange as it sounds, there is an epidemic that endangers Taconic Hills students–and many others– and the statistics bear out that it’s real, not imagined. Columbia Memorial Hospital reported recently that nearly 7% of the residents of Columbia County have some form of diabetes. That fits with another fact from the hospital that nearly three of every five people who live in the county are morbidly obese. Obesity increases the risk of diabetes. Having that many people at risk of, or already having, a disease that poses serious health consequences defines an epidemic.
Nobody seriously suggests that fast food eaten on the way home from a sports contest will harm healthy students, especially when we’re talking about athletes, who are usually in great shape. Few if any of them would fit the description of morbidly obese. But athletes are school leaders; their peers look up to them. If the school district actions encourage them to eat foods high in fat and sugar, which most fast foods are, then the school is contradicting its own efforts to promote a healthy diet and to educate kids to make wise choices on their own. And anyone who knows kids knows how quickly they pick up on adult contradictions.
Taconic Hills has a great record promoting healthful eating habits and offering choices that address what nutrition science says our bodies need to remain fit. Some kids undoubtedly dismiss this stuff as rabbit food and worse. But they’re not forced to eat it and they don’t have to starve as a result.
Once upon a time all students took their own lunches to school. It’s not clear those hastily made peanut butter sandwiches were any better for those of us who ate them than the spaghetti and meatballs (we were sure it was horsemeat or worse), leathery burgers and government cheese that were on the school menu, but they were a way to avoid some of the less appetizing school cuisine. Now the cafeterias at Taconic Hills and other area schools do a much better job of providing wholesome, tasty meals that kids are willing to eat. They also help support local farmers who produce this food, a living lesson every day at lunchtime.
Food is deeply emotional part of everyone’s culture, whether or not we admit it. Good parents will always want to guide the cultural development of their kids, including what and where they eat. But this petition seeking to reinstate school sanctioned stops at fast food restaurants is misguided. Parents should take their kids to whatever type of restaurant they want. But they have no right to demand that schools do that job for them.

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