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One day my five-year-old niece (nicknamed “Bubbles”) asked me: “Tee Tee, can I have some juice?” As I began to pour her a glass of 100 percent apple juice, she stopped me. “No, I want some purple juice!”

Purple juice? Since when did “purple” become a fruit?

What Bubbles really wanted was the purple-colored sugar water she had brought with her to my house, given to her by a family member. There was, in fact, not a drop of juice in the drink she wanted. The real ingredients were: water, citric acid, calcium phosphate, salt, maltodextrin, modified corn starch, artificial flavor, ascorbic acid, FD&C red 40 and FD&C blue (yecch!). I should have hidden it, or maybe just tossed it in the trash the minute I saw it placed in her overnight bag amongst the potato chips, cookies and other snacks the aforementioned family member had also provided. But I’d made the mistake of placing the “purple juice” in the refrigerator, next to all the ACTUAL juice and REAL food, and now Bubbles wanted it.

In a world where things like potato chips, cookies and “purple juice” seem to be the food and drink of choice for children, how do you make sure they eat healthy?

Clearly, it’s not an easy task. Last year, Tennessee was ranked as the fourth most obese state in the country. Nationwide, more than 30 percent of children are obese or overweight. This is triple the number than in 1980. And if you’re talking about low income and minority children, the numbers are even more dismal. What is the cause behind these alarming statistics?  One reason is because kids live much more sedentary lifestyles today than in the past. A growing number of kids spend hours at a time sitting on the couch watching TV or playing video games. The other primary reason is poor nutrition. The meals that children eat today tend to be much higher in fat and calories and much lower in nutritional value than the meals of 30 years ago.

At the time of this writing, The United States Congress just voted to rebuke new USDA guidelines for school lunches that would have increased the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables in school cafeterias and instead declared that the two tablespoons of tomato paste spread onto frozen pizza qualified it as a vegetable. This decision was made at the request of the food companies that produce frozen pizzas, the salt industry and potato growers. Perhaps Bubbles would be thrilled with Congress’ decision. But for those of us who know better, calling pizza a vegetable is just as silly as considering purple a fruit.

Fortunately, many Middle Tennessee area schools are making great strides toward providing healthier food for children. Several schools have created healthy food initiatives, some of which provide salad bars in schools, and fresh fruit donated by local and regional farmers. Bradley Academy in Rutherford County has an alliance with local farmers to provide fresh fruit for their students. And Williamson County recently launched a series of videos starring “Lunch Lady Libby”—who educates students on how to make healthier choices at lunch. “Try this!” Says Libby, referencing an array of brightly colored fruits and veggies. “If you don’t think you’ll like it, at least try it.”

Many organizations, such as Alignment Nashville, the Community Food Advocates and the Healthy School Food team are also working with Metro Nashville schools to create healthier food options for students. Thanks to a grant from Healthways Foundation, Alignment Nashville recently created a pilot program in 10 schools in the Metro Nashville area that provides more fruit and vegetable choices to students, including in-line salad bars and more ala carte items. Glendale Elementary is one such school participating in the program.  In addition to providing a salad bar (with REAL vegetables and ACTUAL fruit), Glendale is also offering whole grain cheese pizza, and turkey sandwiches.

Glen Biggs, Associate Director for Alignment Nashville, believes it is of the utmost importance that kids have access to healthy meals at school. He says: “70 percent of children in Nashville are on free or reduced lunch, so for many of those kids the school cafeteria is the only place they’re going to get a hot, nutritious meal.” By next year, Biggs hopes to expand Alignment Nashville’s program from 10 schools to 40 schools, and eventually, to all 140 schools in the Metro Nashville school system.

Providing healthy food for students isn’t just about their physical health. Studies have shown that kids perform much better academically when they have healthy diets. Says Biggs: “At the end of the day, it’s really all about seeing families and their kids succeed.”

With so many schools working toward a healthier lifestyle for students, parents (aunts, like me) need to get onboard and be sure that we are providing healthy meals and snacks for children at home as well. When Bubbles asked for a glass of purple juice, I managed to distract her long enough that I quickly disposed of the fake stuff, and slipped her a glass of REAL juice instead.

To my surprise, she was in such a rush to go back outside and play, she didn’t even notice. As for the potato chips and cookies she brought with her, she got a small amount of both  (in moderation) before the remainder of them found their way into the trash as well. Ha, purple juice. Never again.

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For a look at the nutritional content of food being served in Metro Nashville schools:

http://health.nashville.gov/SchoolHealth/sh_LunchAnalysis.htm

For more info on Alignment Nashville:

http://www.alignmentnashville.org/