Quite a few headlines about nutrition have cropped up in the past week and a half. Although the battle against obesity still rages on, a federal judge struck down New York City’s requirement that restaurants, including chains like McDonald’s, include calorie information on their menus. Interestingly enough, The New York Times ran a piece last week on Hannaford Brothers, a grocery store chain based in Maine, and its nutrition rating program for each of the food products it carries. That article’s conclusion? Healthy food sells.
It definitely sells to parents of schoolchildren, for whom the obesity issue arguably looms largest. Schools nationwide have altered their menus and blocked access to junk food during the school day — by limiting or eliminating vending machines and curtailing candy and bake fund-raising sales, among other measures — to promote healthy eating habits among their students. And if sugary, colorful, nutrient-deprived foods and beverages weren’t a concern already for the nutrition-conscious, a recent study suggesting that food additives may be linked to hyperactivity make them even more so.
All this sounds like bad news, of course, for the big brands who sell less than wholesome food to school districts. The term “nutritionally modified junk food” made waves a few months ago, and the new school year gave way to anecdotes about whole-wheat pizza and baked “French fries.” Whether or not these changes are innovative or merely gimmicky is debatable. But the recent NYC ruling and the Hannaford example suggests that making voluntary strides toward healthy food choices is more effective than forcing such steps.
For most K-12 students, though, nutrition isn’t so compelling, which is why fast food chains — which are more youth-driven than other types of restaurants — might not jump to posting calorie information as quickly. The tension between voluntary and involuntary nutritional guidelines seen in the headlines comes to a head in the schools, where healthy food and “nutritionally modified junk food” during the day still results in plain old junk food after the bell rings. If voluntary’s the way to go, how can the success of Hannaford’s healthy selections be replicated in the schools? That’s a question for districts nationwide — as well as those ubiquitous brands in the halls.