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Do you have influence over which kinds of foods are served to youth? Are you a parent, grandparent, teacher, administrator or in some way associated with policies that impact youth? Are you a role model? If any of these apply, this might be of interest.I was observing nutrition education with community partners recently and became more aware of influences on youth diets. The contrast in how policies are carried out in two different programs shed light on a complex challenge.

Program A is a youth education program that doesn’t serve or allow “treats” in their classes or programs. No cupcakes, no pre-packaged, sugar-riddled, fat-filled pastries, no cookies made with hydrogenated fats (trans) or high fructose corn syrup, not even treats made with real sugar, which, on occasion, are fine.

The program doesn’t serve “fruit” punch drinks or “fruit” snacks (which, more often than not have never even crossed paths with a real piece of fruit).

At first I thought this was a bit harsh, but the more I thought about it the more sense it made. Kids often get plenty of junk food at home and in various settings such as family, social, community and faith-based gatherings. Some kids get very little healthy food outside of school unfortunately.

Conversely, Program B serves junk food to kids regularly: food “products” that contain very little fiber, vitamins, or minerals, and high amounts of sugars, fats, and salt (sodium).

In fact, we teach kids to “make healthy choices” and then when we observe the environments in which kids are being raised and educated, we clearly see the healthy food choice is often not the easiest choice and is sometimes not a choice at all. Choice implies accessible options.

Exposure to foods, like fruits and vegetables for example, during youth influences a person’s food “choices” later in life. Nutrition also predicts children’s cognitive development and academic success.

So why would we give youth in our community bad fuel? Do we have the intention of setting them on a path to food related illness, poor health, and failure to attain academic and achievement goals? I doubt it’s an intentional choice by adults or people in charge of making policies. Choice implies knowledge.

From limited budgets and resources, to lack of awareness of the consequences of feeding kids junk, there are multiple factors that influence policy level decisions about kids’ diets.

So if people aren’t aware of negative consequences or that other choices exist, or if they lack education, resources, or belief, even, that there’s a need to influence health at individual levels, then the definition of “choice” becomes a little more complicated. Let’s connect the dots.

Both programs want to help kids but only one program will offer the fuel kids need to develop cognitively and compete academically. Why? Resources: financial, knowledge, and skill building resources. And leading with policy.

Please take time to consider how you can help encourage positive health behaviors at all levels of society, which is what it takes to make substantial, sustainable change in our community.

Terri Ward is an administrator, UW-Extension Nutrition Education Program


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