Pumping iron into lunch

Lauren Ayers is a third-grade teacher and co-founder of LEARN (Lifting Educational Achievement with Real Nutrition)

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to get rid of junk food in schools has one thing going for it: Cutting out junk food actually works. For seven years, Appleton Central Alternative School in Appleton, Wisc., serving a hundred “at risk” high-school students, has eliminated foods containing corn syrup or trans fats (hydrogenated fats). Results: No drugs or guns on campus and no dropouts or expulsions. Those who saw the movie Super Size Me may remember the school.

But the governor should know that a lot of its success is not from what it cuts out of children’s diets, but from what it adds in. The school provides lots of fresh and steamed veggies, and flax meal was added to whole-grain breads and smoothies. The entire district has since made the change.

Barbara Reed Stitt, a former probation officer, supervised nutrition education for more than 5,000 probationers. The national average for recidivism is more than 70 percent; only about 20 percent of her clients returned to court.

Flax seeds are half oil. Most of that oil is brain-building omega-3 fatty acids—scarce in modern diets but commonly found in the flax oil used in colonial America. In the 1950s, when we moved to corn and safflower oils—which have no omega-3 fatty acids—Americans still got enough omega-3s from fish, greens, grass-fed beef and certain beans. Less common foods high in omega-3s, in addition to flax, are pumpkin, chia seeds, hemp and walnuts.

However, Americans now have a very lopsided diet, relying on fast food, pre-made foods and snack foods. One National Institutes of Health expert says 90 percent of Americans are deficient on omega-3s.

Low serum levels of omega-3s have been found in people with attention-deficit disorder, asthma, allergies, depression, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and more. The human brain and eye should contain a high percentage of omega-3 fatty acids. But few Americans have heard of omega-3s, because the Food and Drug Administration has not set a recommended daily allowance.

The governor is on the right track in his desire to eliminate junk food, but why stop halfway? Now is the time for public health officials to push for a renaissance of nutrition and for schools, youth authorities and prisons to make big changes. The payoff will be immense!