Janey Thornton

6th April 2012 at 01:00
The deputy under-secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the United States Department of Agriculture talks about the biggest threats to children's health, tackling the obesity crisis and the need to stay on campus. Interview by Julia Belgutay Photography by Martin Hunter

What made you want to be a teacher?

I majored in home economics, initially probably because my mother had and I loved the area. I loved food, and at the time it was clothing and clothing construction, child development and nutrition, housing and interior design - it was very broad. And when I did my student teaching, I just loved it.

What do you see as the biggest threat to children's health in the US?

It is a dual issue, depending on where you are, of obesity and hunger.

What is the cause of the obesity crisis in the US and here?

I think it is really a societal issue. We no longer have the same outlook on food as we did 20 or 30 years ago. Food now is not just something to eat to get the nutrition we need. It is so much more of a social time now. Our portion sizes are huge. We also know there is much more snacking than there used to be, and what we once thought of as a treat, now people have it numerous times a day. As Michelle Obama says, if it's something you have on a daily basis, it's not really a treat.

What measures is the US government taking to tackle childhood obesity?

There are many exercise programmes, and also the First Lady's Let's Move campaign - first started because of the obesity issue. We also have a healthier US school challenge that has nutrition components as well as physical activity. There is a wellness policy, because it's not just what happens in the cafeteria, but throughout school, and there is a component for nutrition education. We have different levels, from bronze to gold with distinction. We encourage schools to start at the bronze level and then improve to eventually become a gold-with-distinction school.

Why is it so important children stay on campus during the school day?

If children leave campus, the chances are much greater that the food selection they have will not be anywhere near as healthy. We have seen time and time again that there is a high school built and, all of a sudden, a multitude of fast-food restaurants pop up around the school. Another issue is if all the popular kids go off campus and get their meals somewhere else, it really stigmatises those kids who don't have the resources to leave campus to eat. If eating on campus isn't the "in" thing to do, kids would often rather go hungry than be seen as a "dork".

Should children not learn to make their own healthy choice, rather than have adults choose for them?

All of our kids have more than ample time to make those healthy choices when they are outside of the school, because they certainly don't eat all of their meals in school. We need to see school as a place where children learn. They learn about maths, they learn about geography and history, and they also need to learn how to cook and what food selections they should be making.

Do you think teachers are good enough role models when it comes to nutrition?

Not always. Your teachers, from what I have heard, I think are much better role models overall than ours. Our teachers sometimes bring a soda, and would sit with a soda on their desk all day. If a teacher talks to kids about healthy food, or when they talk about what they did at the weekend, that it involved some physical activity - that is important. I would love to see more teachers eating with their children.

After a few days in Scotland, what is your most striking impression of the school system?

I have been impressed every place I have been that there seem to be school committees of different sorts. Not only do they ask pupils' opinions and take part in what is going on in the school, but the teachers listen to what the kids say and have made changes even when it is not necessarily the easiest thing for the teacher to do - the school appears to belong to the pupils. I think that is most impressive.

What one single thing should Scotland do to tackle its obesity crisis?

I would probably say closing campuses. But that would be a slow process because you don't have room for all the kids in the cafeteria. I think working with scheduling could help that problem. Along with that, it's to really help communities understand that the policies in place are for the best nutritional health of their kids and it is going to make a huge difference in their children and their ability to learn.

From what you have seen, are there any significant differences between school meals in Scotland and in the US?

We call breakfast the most important meal of the day. So improving the abilities of schools to offer breakfast, and looking at innovative ways that it might be served in the classroom or the hall or whatever it might be - that is something we could definitely share. We probably have a broader programme in that we have after-school snacks, a fruit and vegetable programme at supper.

What is the most important message children should take away from school regarding their eating?

That they are the ones who are in control and they are the ones who have to make those healthy decisions. I think many of our children feel almost invincible, like it doesn't make any difference how reckless they get, they will live through it.


Born: Kentucky, US, 1948

Education: Elkton Elementary; Vine Grove Elementary; Radcliff Elementary; North Hardin High; Western Kentucky University; University of Kentucky; Iowa State University

Career: Home economics teacher; supervisor of vocational economics programmes, Kentucky State Department for Education; director of child nutrition programmes, Hardin County Schools; deputy under-secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, United States Department of Agriculture.

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