Over the next few weeks, Tampa Bay's children will be going back to school — and back to one of the hottest political topics around.
No, not teacher pay or student achievement. I'm talking school lunches.
Even the U.S. Congress, spurred on by first lady Michelle Obama, is getting in on the act. As part of her Let's Move campaign to fight childhood obesity (see www.letsmove.gov), Mrs. Obama is urging legislators on to final passage of the Child Nutrition Bill, aimed at improving lunch-line offerings.
Many parents and school officials have been working on school nutrition for years. But Mrs. Obama's advocacy, and the official action it is inspiring, should move the effort farther and faster.
Why the fuss? If a visual survey of any mall on a busy day doesn't tell you what's happening, maybe the data will: Twenty years ago, about 5 percent of Americans ages 12 to 19 were overweight. That rate has more than tripled to 17 percent. It's even higher among younger kids. These children all face increased risks of heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, bullying — and adult obesity.
Yes, I know lunch is just one meal a day. I agree parents should play the lead role in helping their overweight kids. (See Lavinia Rodriguez's column on Page 16 for more on that topic.)
And no, I do not think making pizza with low-fat cheese and whole-wheat crust is going to work miracles. Nor do I think getting sugary sodas out of school vending machines will get kids fit and trim by next summer.
But it's a start.
What I hope children learn from all this attention to what's on their trays is that small changes can add up. If they can carry that lesson home to their parents, imagine what could happen. For instance:
• If everybody who went to McDonald's twice a week ordered small fries instead of large, in a year they'd save the caloric equivalent of 8 pounds.
• There are 240 calories in a 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola. Give up one a day, and in a year that's 25 pounds and a whole lot of high-fructose corn syrup.
• They won't teach this one at school, but for the grownups, what about a brisk 20-minute after-work walk, rather than a cocktail? A 6-ounce glass of wine has about 150 calories. A 150-pound person burns about 80 calories on that walk, for a net calorie save of 230 — almost as much as that sugary soda.
So instead of discounting the power of small, positive changes in schools, why not try a few yourself and see what happens?