Lasley Elementary gets a new salad bar as part of HBO's The Weight of the Nation

Lasley Elementary students get lunch from their new salad bar.
Lasley Elementary students get lunch from their new salad bar.

Lakewood mayor Bob Murphy stood in front of Lasley Elementary students today and talked about how the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff view obesity as a national security issue, since 27 percent of all applicants for the armed forces are too obese to serve. The rest of the festivities were more upbeat, but they still focused on reversing the obesity epidemic.

That's because Lasley was chosen by HBO, Whole Kids Foundation and GLOBALTAP as one of a hundred schools across the country to receive new salad bars and water taps in coordination with The Weight of the Nation, an HBO documentary about obesity that will have its premiere in two weeks.

"The mission is really to support schools and also drive inspiration in kids and families for healthier eating and understanding nutrition more," says Saskia Cervantes, marketing and communications specialist for Whole Foods, which funds the Whole Kids Foundation.

The Weight of the Nation is a four-part documentary series that will air on HBO May 14 and 15. It examines obesity in terms of its consequences, the choices people can make to reverse the trend, the crisis of childhood obesity and the challenges of fighting obesity.

Events like today's donation to Lasley are part of an effort by HBO to go beyond just airing the documentary. In addition to bringing salad bars and water taps to schools, HBO will be doing community outreach to push a public health campaign, distributing the film for free in many locations and also publishing a book.

Whole Kids will also be planting gardens at schools and creating curriculum for teachers so that they better understand nutrition and are able to effectively convey that information to their students.

Lasley is a Title I school, with many low-income and at-risk students, so it was a prime candidate for this program. The schools are also teaching salad-bar etiquette to reduce plate waste, which results when kids pick up too much stuff from the salad bar and end up throwing the excess in the trash. The idea is to get kids to take an active role in deciding to eat healthier.

"When you give kids a choice and the ability to create their food, they have a tendency to want to be more involved in it and to want to make healthier choices," says Cervantes. "So when we do kids' events and outreach when kids really get their hands on it and get to create and build it, they're much more likely to then eat it." 

While Colorado has earned a reputation as a healthy place and is still the least obese state in the country, some of the health and nutrition challenges facing the state's children are alarming. Between 2003 and 2007, the rate of obese and overweight children in Colorado grew faster than in any other state in the nation -- outside of Nevada. At the same time, one in five children in Colorado live in a house where they are not sure all members of their family will have food to eat.

Programs like the school salad bars are an attempt to reverse this trend. "It may take a generation, but you have to start somewhere," says Murphy. "You have to start the kids in preschool, you have to start them in elementary school. You have to create the awareness at home as well -- anything we can do to help parents understand the value of health. It's going to be a long tug, but this is the way you start."

The Weight of the Nation will be followed by a special three-part series for families that begins with an episode May 16 that highlights a group of school kids in New Orleans who revamped their school-lunch menu. The documentary highlights a number of alarming statistics about childhood obesity and the role school meals play in that.

According to a survey published in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 94 percent of schools in this country served lunch that failed to meet federal standards for healthy school meals, and 80 percent of those lunches exceeded federal recommendations for total and saturated fat. Nearly one-third of children and adolescents are overweight, and obese and childhood obesity rates have more than tripled since 1980.

As executive chef of Jefferson County Public Schools, Jessica Wright is charged with sourcing local food products, creating new recipes and contacting local companies for fresh ingredients. She believes salad bars and programs like this can help, but are only part of the solution.

Among her concerns are changing meal portions, obtaining enough healthy food for the entirety of the schools she serves, giving kids enough time to select and enjoy their food, altering kids' dietary choices outside of school and structuring the school day in a way that highlights the importance of healthy eating.

"My goal is to stay on that current trend of healthy food, good choices and getting industry to really consider what we're doing in school nutrition and really be the change and be the leaders in institutional cooking," says Wright. "That's huge. I think that it is all of our mission in the department -- to make that change and really assist the institution-level food production."

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