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Beyond Tucson examines nutrition in school lunches

The Beyond Tucson Foundation is looking into the not-so-nutritious truth about school lunches, and how the food could be healthier.

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The Beyond Tucson Foundation is looking into the not-so-nutritious truth about school lunches, and how the food could be healthier.

You are what you eat.

This rule can dictate the health of an individual, and even entire communities. The Beyond Tucson Foundation, a local nonprofit focused on improving public health, is hosting a symposium Friday, May 31 to discuss the question: Are school lunches healthy? And while there is much to examine in that question, it might not surprise many to know school lunches can be, at the very least, healthier.

"It's about community voices looking at school lunches, and how nutrition standards affect local communities," said Beyond Tucson director Michelle Crow. "We're getting together to discuss barriers and developing healthier plans."

The event's keynote speaker is Nina Teicholz, an investigative journalist who focuses on nutrition and health. Teicholz is the executive director of Nutrition Coalition, a nonprofit educational organization aimed at "ensuring that U.S. nutrition policy is based on rigorous scientific evidence."

At the upcoming event, Teicholz will discuss how guidelines for school lunches might not be based on the best science.

"I think there's a lot of unknowns," Crow said. "First we need to understand how these USDA guidelines get established... What are the real forces developing those standards? People might not realize it's not particularly based on science, but more on the political whims of the day."

In an opinion column for the New York Times, Teicholz said: "Certainly, the food industry has muddied the waters through its lobbying. But the primary problem is that nutrition policy has long relied on a very weak kind of science... At best they can show only association, not causation."

According to the Department of Agriculture's 2012 report on nutrition standards in national school lunches, the average level of sodium in an elementary school lunch is 1,230 milligrams. This one meal is 64 percent of the daily recommended intake for sodium. The USDA has encouraged schools to reduce sodium in meals since 1995, but levels remain high.

Another aspect of the symposium is understanding how school lunches affect the community. For instance, examining the situations of students from low-income families, where a school lunch may be their only full meal of the day.

This is especially relevant for communities like Marana, where the school district hosts multiple free food events for students in the community, such as their summer food program and "Marana Cares Mobile" delivering meal to low-income students.

The symposium also includes presentations from local students about their school lunches, and presentations by representatives from the Arizona Department of Education.

"I hope people will walk away from this understanding more about how school lunches end up on students' plates," Crow said. "And hopefully get inspired by the work people are doing in our community."

The Beyond Tucson foundation started as a single day of commemoration for Tucson's 2011 mass shooting, but over the years grew into a "year-round commitment to public health." This nonprofit now hosts multiple events every year with a goal of getting Tucson and Pima County healthy. Beyond Tucson was originally formed by family members affected by the shooting, but now includes a diverse array of Southern Arizonans from hospitals, environmental groups, community groups, recreation groups and more.

"The thing about being healthy is it's something you have to do regularly, a commitment you have to make," Crow said. "The first step is to decide what you need to do."

Beyond Tucson bases its goals on "four key pillars" for physical and mental health: outdoor time, physical activity, nutrition and community connection. According to Beyond Tucson founder Ross Zimmerman, nutrition is one of Beyond Tucson's key focuses because it's the area of biggest need for promotion and education. According to the Center for Disease Control, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., and main prevention methods include healthy eating and exercise.

This symposium is part of a series examining each key pillar, one per year. Last year, Beyond Tucson hosted a series of events based around getting outdoors. This year, Beyond Tucson is "looking deeply" at local nutrition.

"If we come together and have these discussions, we can develop new and improved plans," Crow said. "And that's something Pima County is very good at doing."

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