Michelle Obama has endured much criticism for her healthy school lunch initiative, but the problem she seeks to address is very real. The prevalence of obesity among children has doubled since the last generation, and quadrupled among teenagers. The proportion of children and teenagers who are obese is closing in on half. The risks associated with child and teen obesity include greater odds of developing diabetes and a slew of cancers as adults, along with emotional and psychological struggles. If we want society to safeguard the well-being of children, this health crisis has to be a part of what we seek to address; it’s sending countless children into adulthood with a serious physical disadvantage.
Michelle Obama may not have a perfect solution, but she is trying. One thing conspicuously missing from her efforts, however, is a discussion of family culture. Like nearly all habits, a balanced approach to eating begins in the home. And the American home has been seriously rocked in the last several decades. Divorce and single-parent homes have surged, and parents, married or single, are working harder and longer hours. Mrs. Obama alluded to this herself when she said in a recent interview:
Before coming to the White House, I struggled, as a working parent with a traveling, busy husband, to figure out how to feed my kids healthy, and I didn’t get it right…I thought to myself, if a Princeton and Harvard-educated professional woman doesn’t know how to adequately feed her kids, then what are other parents going through who don’t have access to the information I have?
Her comment is not about herself as a working mom, but herself as a part of a home with two busy and hard-working parents. And it’s indeed representative of today’s norm. Parents today work on average three hours more per week than they did in the sixties. That may not seem like a lot, but for many homes, that can be the difference between several meals prepared at home or multiple rides through the nearest drive-through. In a job market that remains competitive, many parents no doubt feel pressure to put in extra hours at the expense of time at home.
This is also evidenced by the decline of the family dinner, a ritual associated with better health and well-being in children. One study found that short and rushed dinners are associated with higher risks of weight problems for children. Many families no longer dine together on a regular basis, and many of those that do struggle to make it to twenty minutes together.
Not only are children less likely to get proper nutrition from a rushed dinner or no family dinner at all, but they are also less likely to learn how to cook and prepare food, a skill that helps them to make better choices about nutrition as an adult. Essentially, they aren’t learning about food, how to shop for it, how to prepare it, and how to enjoy it. As Karen Le Billon, a scholar, food blogger, and author of the book French Kids Eat Everything, put it when explaining why French children spend far more time eating than American children yet don’t struggle with obesity:
The French example suggests that part of the answer to our obesity epidemic lies in food culture: the routines, rules, and rituals through which we teach our children how and why (as well as what) to eat. French teachers and parents believe that children can be taught to eat—just like they are taught to read. And they believe that this is one of the most important skills acquired in early childhood. So they have a series of teaching tools and techniques, built into common-sense routines, that they use at home and at school, to teach children to eat well.
The home and the school go hand in hand. But a culture of healthy eating begins in the home, and is reinforced in the school. And it’s an important culture to be cultivated if children are to enter adulthood physically healthy and well equipped to make good choices about nutrition. Michelle Obama’s school lunch program may be a well-intentioned pedagogical tool to jump-start a renewed culture of health among our nation’s children. But without tying her efforts to a broader discussion about the important of home life, of marriage and family, and of traditions within a family-oriented culture, any initiative aimed at children’s healthy eating is not likely to succeed. The lunch-lady is never going to replace a mom and dad.