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A busy place in any school, the cafeteria bursts into full chaos at lunch time. A few hundred children cycle through in an hour or so, and then things quiet down.

At the high school level, it takes a bit longer. The teenagers in high school are bigger, more hungry, and there’s more of them on campus. It is still the same thing though. From a calm, empty room to full food chaos in a very short period of time.

The other bit of chaos is on the adult level. School lunches have hit the big time. The national obesity issue fuels the debate about what is served in school cafeteria’s across the nation.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20% or more of young children in the United States are overweight. The resulting problems are long term and the solutions are complex.

The school cafeteria becomes a natural place to put into a national spotlight. The thinking is this: If the food service staff insist on lower fat, more nutritious food for the children, the percentage of obese children will shrink. Maybe.

The schools, at least in California, have revamped menus and, in theory, are serving less fat and sugar filled plates of food. While there is still a day that is pizza day, the calories in the pizza aren’t over the top, and donuts have disappeared.

The breakfast menus typically include milk, juice, cereal, and a muffin, with lunch running the gamut from pizza to chicken to hot dogs, tacos, and fish of some sort, with a good salad bar thrown in. Soda’s are mostly a thing of the past.

While San Juan Unified is simply typical of large districts, smaller districts are doing the same thing. The districts have to offer choices that are not only good for children, but choices that the children will actually eat. Federal guidelines are part of the food formula.

What is better, the school food, or what you send from home? Parents who are able to put together a thoughtful and nutritious snack and lunch for their children are probably able to put together something that is better than the cafeteria fare.

Thoughtful and nutritious are the stumbling points. Pre-packaged items from the store could be much higher in fat, sugar, and calories that home made or school cafeteria food. Actually reading the ingredients is critical.

Sending children to school with what amounts to junk food simply defeats any schools attempt at good nutrition.

Eating in the school cafeteria isn’t a de facto bad thing to do, just as sending in food from home isn’t always in the good column.

What is important is that whatever food your child eats, at school or at home, is nutritious and healthy. The debate about childhood obesity should continue, and parents across the nation need to be fully involved in it.

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