An 11-year-old goes undercover

Given that children consume more than 35 percent of their daily calories at school, school foods have emerged as a major focal point of efforts to fight childhood obesity. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and the recently proposed federal rules to limit the fat, calories, sugar and sodium in snacks sold in schools are just two examples of efforts that target on-campus foods.

But we all know that, no matter what rules are in place, real change takes place on the ground (a.k.a., in the case, in the school cafeteria). And the tipping point is often consumer demand.

That’s why we love Zachary Maxwell. An 11-year-old fourth grader, Zachary secretly filmed school lunch footage over the course of more than six months. His goal? To convince his parents the school’s elaborate online menus didn’t really represent the food he was served.

Here’s how Indrani Sen describes the film’s real breakthrough in a piece run by The New York Times:

 In the film, Zachary… makes a point that is under the radar of most conversations about the quality of school lunches: that despite the Education Department’s efforts to improve nutrition, there is a disconnect between the wholesome meals described on school menus and the soggy, deep-fried nuggets frequently dished up in the lunchrooms.

Indeed, among the 75 lunches that Zachary recorded – chosen randomly, he swears – he found the menus to be “substantially” accurate, with two or more of the advertised menu items served, only 51 percent of the time. The menus were “totally” accurate, with all of the advertised items served, only 16 percent of the time. And by Zachary’s count, 28 percent of the lunches he recorded were built around either pizza or cheese sticks.

Kids are key players in the fight to turn the tide on childhood obesity

As adults, we owe it to kids like Zachary to do more than educate them about making healthy personal choices amid a sea of sugary, salted, fat-laden options. We also need to help them find their voices, so they can advocate for more systemic changes that make healthy foods available and plentiful to all.

We see inspiring examples of kids advocating for change nationwide. In New Orleans, a group of kids who dubbed themselves the Rethinkers took on city government and corporate America to advocate for better food at school. In North Carolina, a 17-year-old named Kebreeya went toe to toe with the local political machine, advocating for a school salad bar with everyone from the school board to the mayor. In Philadelphia, where childhood obesity rates have begun to decline, a group of kids called the Snackin’ Fresh Crew went out to corner stores near their schools to ask for healthier options.

What’s happening in your town? And what can you do to help?

Read Zachary’s story at The New York Times.

Watch clips from his video here: