CHICAGO -- It's not that I don't welcome good news, but here's a caveat to go along with recent reports that children in the U.S. are consuming fewer calories: All calories are not created equal.
A recent analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 1999 and 2010, boys daily consumed 7 percent fewer calories (2,100) and girls 4 percent less (1,755).
Most news coverage noted that the researchers were surprised by the drop. But they surely weren't more shocked than moms and dads across the country who pay close attention to what their kids are served in public schools.
Stricter guidelines calling for meals with lower sodium and calories went into effect at the beginning of this school year. Yet some of the things you might find in your local school's cafeteria for lunch -- or during breakfast, if your community feeds children in the morning in an effort to combat chronic food insufficiency -- are still driving some of us parents crazy.
Just days after the good news on calories broke, Sally Kuzemchak, a registered dietician and mother of two boys, 4 and 8, articulated my angst perfectly with her blog post "The Trouble With School Breakfast."
Describing her son's alarming fatigue with Cocoa Puffs, she lamented that managing the extra meal served before classes has become a minefield.
"Should I not feed him a healthy breakfast at home if he's going to eat a school breakfast, even though he's hungry when he wakes up? Ask that he take the sugary cereal and then throw it away uneaten? Limit the added sugar he gets the rest of the day to make up for the load he gets in the morning? Allow him to make his own choices and hope (as with the Cocoa Puffs) he grows tired of it? Refuse to let him eat school breakfast entirely and take away one of his favorite social scenes of the day?"
In the past few years, I've done all of the above. In fact, I'd just gotten back home from dropping off my older son at school for a "zero hour" study session and hoping he'd not treat himself to a second morning meal when I saw Kuzemchak's post on her blog "Real Mom Nutrition."
I tracked her down to ask how in the world parents are supposed to keep pressure on schools to get rid of the high-sugar, high-calorie food they give our kids when the news is blaring about lowered calorie intake and scattered, modest declines in childhood obesity rates?
"It's really tough because it's such a complex issue and it's so different today than when we were kids," Kuzemchak told me. "First you have real evidence that some kids just don't take to the healthier choices and end up throwing their food away, which is such a strain on the school's budget.
"Then you have the misconceptions that just because kids are eating less calories, it means that the calories they do take in are healthy. For instance, I live near Columbus, Ohio, in a community with lots of educated, professional people who look at our kids and say 'What's the big deal? Our kids are not overweight.' But it's not all about weight -- it's about health, which isn't always reflected on the outside.
"What are we telling our children about healthy eating habits if we're teaching them that breakfast is a bowl of mini chocolate-chip cookies with a blue yogurt? When they're adults, those habits are going to catch up with them."
And it's not just about breakfast and lunch. The entire school day is steeped in snacks. At dinner the other night, my older son was describing to his younger brother how his teachers would be supplying granola bars, gum, and Lemonheads hard candy to chomp on during their upcoming state exams.
"I always hear people say, 'Oh, we ate junk food when we were growing up and we're fine.' But things are so different now," Kuzemchak said. "When we grew up we had real lunch ladies and, yes, we had junk food but not all day, every day, at every event we went to. And did we turn out fine? I look at rates of diabetes and obesity and I don't know."
Take it from us moms: Never mind the sunny headlines, we're definitely not all doing fine on the food front.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.