Skip to main content

Helping America’s Kids Eat Better: How Three Women are Leading the Movement

Jan 31, 2024 07:23AM ● By Megy Karydes
Healthy lunches for kids

NK_happylark/Canva Pro

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of children aged 1 to 5 have not eaten a vegetable today. Each week, nearly one in three won’t eat a piece of fruit, and more than half will have had at least one sugar-sweetened beverage. Kids consume 66 grams of sugar per day—that is a whopping 53 pounds of added sugar a year, according to the American Heart Association.

The foods and drinks kids consume have tremendous impact on their overall health, and these statistics suggest that many parents and guardians need to do a better job of steering their offspring toward more nutritious options. Mountingscientific evidence reveals that a healthy lifestyle from infancy to adulthood helps people maintain good health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Many youngsters today don’t eat enough nutritious meals, playing a major role in how they perform in school, according to a study published in Journal of School Health

Prompted by perceived needed changes in childhood nutrition, the private sector is stepping up to improve the ways we teach and feed our youngest, hoping to raise healthier future generations. Here are three examples. 

Putting Nutrition First

Former First Lady Michelle Obama launched the “Let’s Move!” national campaign in 2010 to reduce childhood obesity and teach children and their caregivers how to create healthier eating habits and lifestyles, and her work didn’t end when she left the White House. In May 2023, she helped launch PLEZi Nutrition, a food and beverage company for children with a stated mission “to be a driver of change, creating higher standards for how we make and market food and beverages for our kids, leading with nutrition, taste and truth.”  

I've learned that on this issue, if you want to change the game, you can't just work from the outside. You've got to get inside—you've got to find ways to change the food and beverage industry itself,” Obama said at The Wall StreetJournal’s Future of Everything Festival. “I'm proud to announce the national launch of a company designed not just to provide better products, but to jumpstart a race to the top that will transform the entire food industry.”


Teaching Healthy Eating in Schools

In 2009, Jyl Steinback created the national nonprofit Shape Up US to provide teachers, children, parents and communities with the tools they need to adopt healthy, lifelong habits. Rather than trying to impact school lunch programs that are notoriously difficult to change, the co-author of multiple books, including Think Outside the Lunchbox Cookbook, brings her nutritional curriculum into classrooms. She created five booklets with hands-on activities that support sustainable living and plant-based nutrition, as well as the Hip Hop Healthy Heart Program for Children that focuses on cardiovascular health. Since 2009, her programs have been used in 34 states, reaching more than 100,000 children.

Steinback believes in the power of early education. “If you start with K [kindergarten] through sixth grade, you're planting that seed,” she explains, adding that children are naturally curious and willing to try new things as long as they’re involved in the decision-making process. One way she coaxes kids to make better choices is by prompting them to go grocery shopping with their parents and pick a food they’ve never eaten before.


Modeling Healthy Behavior

“We have this belief that we can feed children anything,” says public health nurse Meryl Fury, the president and CEO of Plant Based Nutrition Movement. “People will say, ‘Let them be kids; let them eat donuts; let them eat Pop Tarts.’ We feed them mac and cheese and chicken nuggets, and we think it’s fine, but our data shows that children have increasing rates of obesity, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. These are things that never occurred in children before, and it’s very much connected to our lifestyle.”

Fury recommends that parents and teachers model better behavior and improve the school food culture in general. Instead of using candy as rewards in the classroom, other incentives can be offered such as stickers, pencils or other non-food treats. She reminds parents and teachers that some children might have attention deficit disorder or other challenges that relate to impulse control or self-regulation, and high-sugar or highly processed foods and dyes are not good for them, or anyone.

If children initially resist trying new foods, Fury encourages adults not to give up. “Boil it, mash it, sauté it, simmer it, roast it, serve it raw, serve it with sauce or serve it as a dip,” she suggests. It can take one to two dozen times of exposing a child to a new food before they’re even willing to try it, but the healthy benefits could be lifelong.

Megy Karydes is a Chicago-based writer and author of 50 Ways to More Calm, Less Stress: Scientifically Proven Ways to Relieve Anxiety and Boost Your Mental Health Using Your Five Senses.