Has Michelle Obama been consulting with Israel's Education Ministry? In a new edict issued in time for the opening of the new school year, the Ministry has taken a page out of the First Lady's healthy school lunch program.
This year, the Ministry declared, students who celebrate their birthdays in class will have to supply healthy snacks – fruits and vegetables – instead of candy, snacks, and birthday cake.
School-supplied lunches are not universal in the Israeli school system, but the practice of having a birthday party in class is quite common, starting from kindergarten and going on to the third grade.
In many classes, teachers hold monthly “birthday events” that celebrate the birthdays of all children born in a particular month, while in other classes, the birthday parties are held on Fridays for children who celebrated their event that week. In many classes, teachers supply the snacks to be eaten at the party, with parents supplementing the celebration with a cake and/or small gifts.
However, with health officials concerned that Israeli kids are getting fatter, the Education Ministry has decided to take action to promote healthy eating habits among children. Last year, the Ministry quietly started a new program to promote healthy eating – by requiring healthy snacks at birthday parties. The program is now to be expanded to schools around the country.
According to Irit Livna, Supervisor of Health Matters in the Education Ministry, “Birthday parties are generally venues for consumption of less-healthy foods, including candy and soft drinks. Because there are so many of these events we are required to increase awareness of healthy eating among parents and children, especially in kindergarten and younger grades.”
She suggested that as a compromise, children be fed fruits and vegetables, as well as other “healthy options,” at the parties themselves. Parents could, if they wish, supply “booty bags” with candy and other less-healthy but more fun foods.
However, she said, it would be better to include, instead of candy, “fruit, a small toy, or a coloring book in the like in those bags.” In any event, she added, parties should include elements of physical activities, “placing the child, and not the food, at the center of attention.”
According to the Education Ministry, more than a quarter of Israeli kids are overweight, due mostly to their overexposure to processed foods, and a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables.
In 2010, U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama established the Chefs Move to Schools program as part of her Let's Move initiative, designed to get American kids to exercise more and eat better.
The program, in which schools have swapped out lunch mainstays such as pizzas and hamburgers for broccoli and salads, has been very controversial, with parents opposed accusing the government of trying to mandate their eating habits, while supporters point to the high levels of obesity among kids in the US as a main focus.
Schools that receive assistance for their free or subsidized lunch programs are required to follow a healthy eating plan mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 – a statute signed by US President Barack Obama that actualizes many of the ideas Michelle Obama has been trying to implement.