Farm to School efforts worthwhile

Students accesss healthy foods at school thanks to Farm to School programMy children complain that they do not like the “healthy” lunches at their school this year. I’ve heard some schools are serving fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms, and I think that might help. How can I find out more? 

School cafeterias have never been awarded top-rated Zagat reviews, but the changes your children are seeing in the chow line are likely the result of the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010,” which required the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools, even snacks and a la carte items, beyond the foods that are part of federally supported school meals programs.

Although the act doesn’t need to be fully implemented in schools yet, students in many schools are already seeing a marked difference: fewer fries and chicken nuggets, more fajita chicken and steamed broccoli. The idea is to increase the fruits, vegetables and whole grains and reduce the sodium on the school menu.

The act also promotes connections between schools and local farmers who can provide locally grown produce. Both the National Farm to School Network ( and Ohio State University Extension’s Ohio Farm to School program (, can help a community get started. It’s best to form a team involving school food service staff, teachers, administrators, local farmers, students, parents and community organizations, and establish just one or two attainable goals to start with. A Farm to School effort can go beyond the cafeteria serving line to promoting experiential learning by starting a school garden and organizing visits to local farms as well as incorporating more nutrition and agriculture into the school curriculum.

The effort is likely to be worthwhile. Research shows students in schools participating in Farm to School programs tend to:

  • Consume more fruits and vegetables both through Farm to School meals and at home.
  • Consume fewer unhealthy foods and sodas.
  • Reduce “screen time” — that is, time in front of the television, computer and/or video games.
  • Increase physical activity.
  • Increase knowledge and awareness of gardening, agriculture, healthy eating, local foods and seasonality.
  • Demonstrate willingness to try out new foods and healthier options.
  • Show overall improvement in academic achievement and life skills, self-esteem and social skills.

Limiting sodium a good idea for most

156430566My father, who has high blood pressure, has recently started using more salt, saying he has read that it’s not as bad as people think. Can that be right? 

If your father has high blood pressure, he should definitely limit his use of the salt shaker — as should most people. But it’s not hard to figure out where his confusion is probably coming from.

Earlier this year, the Institute of Medicine issued a report examining sodium intake and its relation to cardiovascular disease and death. It found higher levels of sodium are indeed associated with increased health risks. But another finding tended to get more attention: that very low sodium intake might also carry health risks. Your father might have seen those headlines and could very easily have taken them out of context.

However, the debate in nutrition circles really centers on how much most people should reduce sodium intake — not whether they should do so at all.

Most Americans simply don’t realize just how much sodium passes by their lips each day — an estimated 3,400 milligrams a day on average, far above the 2,300 milligrams that the Institute of Medicine would recommend, and more than double the 1,500 milligrams recommended by the American Heart Association. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics take a middle ground, recommending 2,300 milligrams a day, or 1,500 milligrams for people in higher risk groups, including anyone 51 or older, African Americans, or those with high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.

Unfortunately, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 5 percent of Americans limit sodium to 2,300 milligrams a day, and only 1 percent are able to keep it to 1,500 a day.

Part of the reason is that our taste buds are used to sodium. But much of the sodium we consume doesn’t even come from the salt shaker. It’s hidden in products such as canned foods, processed frozen meals, cold cuts and bacon, cheese, pizza, burgers, soups, snacks and restaurant meals.

Different brands of the same food can vary widely in their sodium content, so it’s important to read Nutrition Facts labels. Encourage your father to keep a tally for a few days. He might be surprised at what he discovers. And, he should know that using herbs and spices instead of salt can add a burst of flavor without needing to use the salt shaker.

A new definition for ‘gluten-free’

120724276I heard recently that the government set a definition for “gluten-free” labels on foods. If that just happened, why have I seen “gluten-free” on some food labels for years? 

Unfortunately, the gluten-free labels you’ve seen in the past had no standard definition — and that will continue to be the case until August 2014, when the new rule by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration goes fully into effect.

At that point, you can be assured that any food labeled gluten-free will contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. That is the lowest level of gluten that can be consistently detected in foods using valid scientific testing, and is a standard consistent with that used in other countries.

Luckily, the FDA believes that of the foods currently labeled gluten-free, only about 5 percent contain more than 20 ppm of gluten. But if you are one of the estimated 3 million Americans with celiac disease, you’ve got to wonder: Which foods would those be?

Although a lot of people these days flirt with a gluten-free diet to try to lose weight or feel healthier, eating gluten-free is a serious matter for people with celiac disease. Gluten is a protein that occurs naturally in wheat, rye, barley and hybrids of those grains. Although oats do not contain gluten, they can be contaminated during harvest or processing with grains that do, so people with celiac disease usually avoid oats, as well.

Why? If you have celiac disease and you consume gluten, your body’s defense system goes haywire and attacks the lining of your small intestine, causing sometimes-severe abdominal pain, bloating, intestinal bleeding and diarrhea. Long-term, the damage to the small intestine can be so severe that deficiencies of important nutrients such as iron and calcium can result, leading to conditions ranging from anemia to osteoporosis.

Gluten-free labels can be an immense help if you have celiac disease. It might be obvious to examine ingredients listings of grain-based foods — breads, pastas, crackers and cakes — for wheat, rye, barley and related ingredients. However, other foods that contain gluten aren’t so obvious, including candies, gravies, salad dressings, sauces, seasoned rice mixes, flavored snack foods, soups and soup bases, vegetables in sauce, and processed lunchmeat.

A “gluten-free” label — one you can trust — will make life in the grocery store aisle much easier.


Get moving, for a lot of reasons

80379902I know that getting enough exercise is recommended to reduce the risk of heart disease. Is that just because doing so helps you maintain a healthy weight, or is there a separate benefit? 

Your instincts are on the mark. While both a healthy diet and regular physical activity can reduce a whole host of risk factors related to heart disease — such as maintaining a healthy weight, reducing blood pressure and cholesterol, and managing blood sugar levels — they both have heart-healthy benefits in their own right.

Inactive people are nearly twice as likely to develop coronary heart disease as people who are physically active, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Physical activity helps the heart in a number of ways. Regularly engaging  in moderate to vigorous activity strengthens the heart muscle, which helps improve your heart’s ability to pump blood to your lungs and throughout your body. That allows more blood to flow to muscles, and increases oxygen levels in your blood.

The microscopically small blood vessels throughout your body, called capillaries, also widen. This allows them to deliver more oxygen to tissues.

Aerobic exercise benefits your heart and lungs the most. That’s the type of exercise that moves the large muscle groups in your arms and legs. Walking, jogging, running, swimming, biking, dancing, tennis, basketball, skateboarding, jumping rope and doing jumping jacks are all examples of aerobic exercise.

Even working in the yard and garden — digging, hoeing or raking — or doing housework counts as aerobic exercise if the activity is vigorous enough to increase your heart rate.

You know you’re exercising hard enough to have an effect if the activity causes noticeable increases in your breathing and heart rate. You’re doing moderate-intensity activity if you can still talk, but not sing, while doing the activity. If you find you can’t say more than a few words without stopping for a breath, you’ve reached the level of “vigorous” activity.

If you’re currently not very active, build up gradually to 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity activity per week — that’s 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Just 10 minutes three times a day counts toward that goal.

If you already have heart problems or have other risk factors — if you’re overweight, if you smoke, if you have diabetes or high blood pressure, for example — first check with your doctor about what type of exercise is right for you.