A close look at Louisiana’s children shows that far too many don’t have enough to eat or have diets that are filled with empty calories. Our state’s rate of childhood obesity is alarming. And, of course, unhealthy children run a greater risk of growing into adults who suffer from the many serious health maladies that plague our state.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and our own experience tell us that establishing healthy habits during childhood is far easier and more effective than trying to change the habits of adults. And, here’s an even more encouraging fact: Children who learn a better way to eat and stay healthy bring these habits home to their families.

A recent editorial in The Advocate noted that nutrition problems extend beyond access and that families need to learn how to prepare healthier meals at home. This is true, but I suggest that we must work the problem from many angles. Schools and community organizations play a critical role in helping children learn the skills to make positive choices for their health and nutrition. This can happen through classroom instruction, school nutrition programs, adult role-modeling and peer learning. Kids need the opportunity to see, smell and taste healthy meals — not meals that simply meet USDA standards but meals that are made from scratch, visually appealing and tasty.

We expect that healthier foods may not always be accepted at first, but there is progress. According to a new survey published in the journal Childhood Obesity, students actually don’t mind the nutritious meals they’re being offered. Last school year, administrators reported students started off complaining about healthier lunches, but by spring, the great majority of students in urban schools generally liked the new lunch. This was especially true of elementary students. These findings support the importance of introducing nutrition opportunities to children at a very early age, developing their palates for healthier alternatives and teaching them where food comes from through exposure to school gardens and farm-to-school initiatives.

Children need access to healthy food and the skills to help them choose to eat it. But, nutrition education and offering healthy food options takes time and energy. It requires an investment in our youth and in the future of our communities. But this is an investment we must make. Community organizations such as Volunteers of America are making this investment now. Every day, we teach health and nutrition education in local classrooms through our Healthy Lifestyle Choices program and serve healthy, delicious meals in lunchrooms through our Fresh Food Factor program. Volunteers of America, along with government agencies, schools and other community members, is committed to fostering a healthier future for the children of Greater New Orleans.

Donna Betzer

Volunteers of America program director, Healthy Lifestyles Choices

New Orleans