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Trimming Maine waistlines starts with kids

Lunch money
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  October 7, 2011

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Foods that have shown up on my lunch plate recently: spiced and roasted potatoes from Green Thumb Farm in Fryeburg, hearty chili with beans from Exeter and local veggies, sweet and juicy corn-on-the-cob from Belanger's Farm in Lewiston, and local leafy greens from Snell and Jordan farms in Buxton and Cape Elizabeth, still crunchy with bits of earth. For dessert: strawberry shortcake with berries from Fair Winds Farm in Bowdoin, and a crisp and tangy apple from Pie Tree Orchard in Sweden (Maine).

I haven't been dining at local farm-to-table establishments, at least not the kind you may be thinking of. Nope, these meals came on compartmentalized school-lunch trays, one at the East End Community School on Munjoy Hill, and the other at Songo Locks Elementary School in Naples.

The farm-fresh component of these particular lunches was amped up due to the fact that Maine Harvest Lunch Week took place from September 26 to 30, when schools across the state highlighted local ingredients in their cafeterias. To different degrees, these locally procured feasts were representative of a systemic change. This year, Portland public schools are spending 22 percent of their $1.4 million food budget on local foods, says Ron Adams, food-service director for the district. That's up from about zero just a few years ago. Meanwhile, Naples has implemented an across-the-board shift to brown rice and whole-grain bread and pizza doughs, says school health coordinator Courtney Kennedy. As of this year, Hood Milk offers low-fat chocolate milk, and many districts are switching to skim or one-percent white milks.

"The cafeteria is the biggest classroom in the entire school," says Walter Beesley, child nutrition specialist with the state Department of Education. "We want that to be a healthy environment."

To that end, Maine is receiving tons of money to instill healthy eating habits and healthy living habits in schools, towns, and families. We're talking millions of dollars, to increase the availability and affordability of fresh foods and boost physical activity — while decreasing our waistlines.

And not a moment too soon. Our state has the highest rate of obesity in New England, and we rank 27th nationwide, according to CalorieLab, an online nutrition facts database and blog (it compiles its rankings based on federal health data). Maine was one of only 16 states in the country that grew fatter last year; we ranked 29th in 2010. Our rate of diabetes has climbed steadily over 15 years (from 4 percent to 8.4 percent), as has our total percentage of people who are either obese or overweight (obese = body-mass index of 30+, overweight = BMI of 25 to 29) While Maine's childhood obesity rate (12.9 percent) is relatively low compared to other states (we rank 37th), close to a third of the state's children are too heavy — either obese or overweight. Studies show that the majority of overweight kids grow into overweight adults.

As evidenced by First Lady Michelle Obama's crusade against childhood obesity (not to mention her enlisting of Beyoncé to make the amazing "Let's Move" dance video!), we cannot ignore these facts any longer. Why is Maine getting so much cash to introduce and expand food and nutrition initiatives? Because the alternative is a health-care disaster waiting to happen.

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