Childhood obesity must be addressed on many fronts; I believe that family dinner is one of them. Tomorrow I'm attending a conference at the New York Academy of Sciences called Super-Sized World, and I'm looking forward to learning more about latest research and policy initiatives to combat the worldwide obesity epidemic.
Recently, U.S. school lunch reform has been one of the big topics in the food community and there is great hope that can help address obesity in school children. I am a big proponent of school lunch reform, and I am thrilled that CNR finally passed last week. It is great to have a little more money in the budget and a little more direction on nutrition in the hope of providing healthy meals to kids. School lunch and breakfast programs are essential, but healthy meals belong at home too.
If you are really going to fight childhood obesity and improve nutrition, you must engage parents and support family meals at home. I was recently interviewed for a magazine that is directed to Title I school administrators. (Title I* is a designation for schools with a high percentage of students from very low income families and these schools receive extra federal funding through the Title 1 program). The theme of the article was parent engagement and how to encourage families to have dinner together. The research is clear: students who have dinner with their families are more likely to get As and Bs at school, and better grades are related to less drug and alcohol use, less truancy and behavioral problems. So, family dinner (at home) is actually something that school administrators, and policymakers, should care about.
This is one reason why the effort to cut food stamps in order to pay for school lunch was so infuriating. If anything, low income families need more support in order to be able to purchase and serve healthy food to their families. Family dinner is not a middle class value, and I believe that it is a key intervention to help ground families and their children (those Title I students) and help them succeed. There's research backing that up, too.
While you can't "legislate" family dinner, and that is not at all what I'm suggesting, I do think that social, economic, and policy supports matter as people make choices that affect their health. So let's keep up the pressure to improve school food without losing sight that family meals at home matter too.
Childhood Obesity Resources:
RWJF Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity
PreventObesity.net If you work on this issue, join the Network!
Yale Rudd Center for Policy Policy and Obesity
House Passes Child Nutrition Legislation: Cause for Celebration or Concern? One Hungry Mama on The Family Kitchen Blog, 12.2.10
*Full disclosure: Two of my children go to Title I schools. In New York City, there are top performing schools that have very low income kids; that's the facts. My high school student goes to Brooklyn Technical High School which you have to test into by scoring well on a highly competitive test. I do lunch duty at my youngest child's school and believe it or not, they serve a pretty healthy lunch. But no one should confuse these chaotic lunchrooms, regardless of what food is served, for the type of connection that you can establish around family meals at home.