What can a 100-Year Old Irish Grandmother Teach Us About School Lunches?
It’s hard to imagine a topic more important than the health of our kids. Each and every day in America, some 31.6 million lunches are dished out to our youngsters at more than 99,000 schools and child-care institutions. For most of the 20 million or so kids who receive a free or reduced-price lunch, that means a lunch plate assembled to match ratios of this and that laid down in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (think MyPlate), while the kids with a few extra dollars in their pocket can load up on other lunch delicacies in addition to, or instead of, that day’s meal.
While President Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Campaign, along with the amazing work of organizations like the National Farm to School Network are greening up the lunch plate and providing health and nutrition education from plough to plate, low-income children are still much more likely to be overweight than their more affluent classmates or nearby school districts. These are the same kids who are likely to be getting the free or reduced-price meal that mimics the government’s definition of a balanced and nutritious lunch.
Whether or not so-called food deserts – “areas bereft of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and other nutritious food sources” – or any of the myriad of other food justice issues are at play here, nobody has considered the impact of school lunches on the microbiota (gut bugs) of our nations progeny. A recent study among elderly folks in Ireland of all places, suggests we might want to give this some thought.
In a recent issue of the journal Nature, researchers studying the microbiota, or gut bacteria, of 178 older Irish citizens found they could group individuals based on the composition of their gut bacteria, which correlated with whether they lived at home, in a day-hospital, or in a rehabilitation or long-term residence care. Seems diet was the driver.
According to the researchers, people living in their own homes had diets that were rich in “fiber, fruits, vegetables, grains, poultry and fish.” When they measured the composition of their gut bacteria, they found a greater diversity when compared to folks residing in assisted living facilities consuming the more institutionalized meals dominated by staples of mashed potatoes and porridge, puddings, sweetened beverages (several times a day), high-sugar and energy dense foods (several times a day), and less diversity of fruits and vegetables. Sound familiar?
More importantly, the folks living at home with a more diverse gut microbiota, scored significantly better on clinical tests measuring frailty and cognitive function. According to lead researcher Paul O’Toole, “they were healthier older people.”
This is not the first study linking diet to gut bacteria diversity, there have been many, but the well-controlled nature of the study and the strength of the correlation between diet, gut bacteria diversity and makers of health, were so strong.
One can’t help but to think about the meals served and consumed at the assisted living facilities in Ireland and the institutional lunches served – along with the other foods and beverages that are available – in the lunchrooms of America and its possible impact on the gut diversity of our kids. While there are known changes in the gut health of older adults and younger populations, diet never stops playing an important role – no matter the age.
The problem is that we just don’t know – because nobody has ever looked at childhood obesity, issues of food justice and overall health of our youngsters in the lunchroom and our communities from the perspective of the gut bacteria. So as part of our American Gut Project, we are going to do just that. If we are successful in our Kickstarter project that will launch on or about September 1, we will ask for support to enroll kids and communities from areas throughout America – such as New Orleans. We will seek out those schools and communities that fall on the lower rung of the economic ladder and contrast them with school lunches and feeding initiatives in more affluent areas. Diversity in communities and programs will be important.
We will attempt to account for and measure the impact of things like Edible Schoolyards, healthier eating initiatives, such as those championed by so many like Revolution Foods and the Jamie Oliver’s of the world, and attempt to make a contribution to what is the most important conversation we can have. We have no idea what we will learn, and the list of confounding factors is long. But we are sure that by helping parents and kids better understand the role diet plays in maintaining their inner ecosystem, or Invisible Eden if you like, this will lead to a generation better equipped to make healthier choices for them, and their microbes.
Join us; we can’t do this without you.