Susanna DeRocco uses homegrown vegetables in meals that her two young sons help prepare. She helps the boys understand food labels and decode messages from advertisers. She supports improvements in school lunches.
With a little effort, she says, parents can lay a solid foundation that helps their kids make good food decisions for the rest of their lives.
"There are a lot of influences out there," said the Towson mother and educator. "They are going to have to make choices, and I feel I've given them a really good framework."
But while 10-year-old Ben and 7-year-old Griffin are now following their parents' lead, most parents are not heavily influencing their children's diets, according to a new study from the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. Researchers looked at 30 years' worth of studies and found that kids' diets have become far different from their parents', and they appear less healthy.
May A. Beydoun, a co-author of the study, said many people assume that parents have a strong say in what their children eat. But outside forces might have more sway, particularly over older kids who eat out more, concluded Beydoun and Dr. Youfa Wang, lead author of the study and an associate professor in the department of international health.
The outside forces are many: friends, schools, area stores and advertisers, among others.
"The parents' influence was weak," said Beydoun, a staff scientist at the National Institute on Aging and a former postdoctoral fellow at the Bloomberg School. "Parents can have an influence, but there needs to be a concerted effort outside the home."
The many negative messages are contributing to the obesity epidemic among young people, she said.
About 17 percent of children ages 2 to 19 are obese, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC says they are at risk for heart disease and diabetes, and are much more likely to become obese adults.
Steps are being taken to combat obesity. This week, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. It means $4.5 billion for more free and reduced-price school lunches and more government power to decide what will go in the meals and school vending machines. The money, an estimated extra 6 cents a meal, aims to improve nutrition standards and encourage use of local produce.
Ahead of the new law, many schools in the Baltimore area have been making menu and curriculum changes. Baltimore students, for example, learn about healthy foods at a city-owned farm, and fresh produce has been incorporated into meals.
City health officials have been working to bring better food options to neighborhoods that lack supermarkets by increasing the number of community gardens and delivering groceries. The city recently raised the tax on bottled sodas, which research shows could lead to lower consumption. And in the spring, officials will launch an advertising campaign aimed at countering ads for unhealthy foods.
Called Healthy Food in Motion, it will get elementary school children to design the ads that will be placed in city buses. The messages are aimed more at the kids than the bus riders. The campaign is part of a larger effort called Get Fresh Baltimore, aimed at increasing healthy food access and information. It's funded by a grant of more than $100,000 from Kaiser Permanente. Another element of the program is "food literacy" instruction in the schools from the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.
"There are so many more influences on youth now," said Holly Freishtat, the city's food czar, who is overseeing the bus ad campaign. "Kids are eating out more. ... They are also spending hours a day on the computer and watching TV and being bombarded by advertising. This is why food literacy is so important. We need to create a society with youth who are able to consciously decide what is healthy food and what is not."
Freishtat said it is the responsibility of everyone — government, schools, community centers, religious organizations, parents — to provide good influences and counter all of the negative information.
Coping with all of the outside influences has frustrated Kristen Diggs, a Pasadena mother. She is a vegetarian who is passionate about healthy foods, yet her daughter, Erin, eschews fruits or vegetables no matter what Diggs tries, including little rewards for "trying something new" and refusing to let her eat only what she wants. Erin, 7, sees sugary cereal on TV and candy at the market, and she wants it.
"I only wish I could influence my daughter's eating habits, and it definitely has not been for a lack of trying," Diggs said. "I just don't understand how she can be with me at every breakfast and dinner and not ever want to try a vegetable or fruit, like I eat. It's an issue that is constantly on my mind, and one that I worry about, that rather than me influencing her, it's the outside environment."
Melissa Schober, a Charles Village mother, said she tries to influence her 21/2-year-old Ruth by having her eat what they eat. The family has no television, which helps avoid commercials for junk food.
But Schober knows there can still be "food struggles." She will sometimes modify meals to appeal to Ruth, and like most parents, wishes the toddler would eat more vegetables. If she refuses to eat a meal altogether, she can have only yogurt with fruit.
"That isn't to say we don't occasionally let her watch Dora via Netflix on our computer or let her eat all the french fries she can hold in an airport or when we go out to PaperMoon Diner," she said. "But mostly we try to buy and serve healthy, and we involve her in the cooking process by letting her help stir or pick what side we're having."
DeRocco is working with a new group called Baltimore County Healthy Kids Coalition. The group supports the school district's efforts to improve meals and add exercise to the day. It wants to offer information and resources, including the parents themselves, which can supplement current offerings.
She said many schools have taken matters into their own hands. At West Towson Elementary, where DeRocco's sons attend, parents lead short aerobic exercises between classes, and officials are considering planting container gardens with produce that could be used in the cafeteria.
She said she's encouraged by everyone's willingness to help steer kids to a more healthful lifestyle, but said parents need to stay vigilant about the food their children consume at their table and away from home. That means pushing for transparency in school lunch and grocery store ingredients
"I would encourage parents to continue leading by example and not to give up on the quest for a healthy lifestyle," DeRocco said. "They have a tremendous influence on their children."