One of the most pressing issues concerning childhood obesity deals specifically with the lunches and snacks that are served to students in schools. For years, many people have fought to force schools to serve healthier lunches. In 2010, British chef Jamie Oliver began his "Food Revolution" in America, hoping to improve school lunches and educate children and parents about healthier diets. Although he faced obstacles in public schools when he attempted to bring in fresh foods, eliminate sugary chocolate and strawberry milk, and prove fresh food tastes better than highly processed and fried food, he sparked great conversation and debate about juvenile health and nutrition.
Houston has been deemed "the fattest city in America" by Men's Fitness, and that's nothing to joke about, because the problem doesn't begin and end with adults; it affects children of this generation and generations to come, as well.
This is where Michael Alba and his family come into play. In August 2013, Alba, along with his wife, daughter and sons, began operating Wholesome Tummies, a national franchise that provides healthy lunches to schools.
"My wife and I, we were working in the medical field, and we both work for a leading cancer hospital near the center, and we have seen the effects of unhealthy eating habits, so we wanted to make a difference in our children's lives," Alba says. "We said if we can make a difference in the way our children eat, and start early, then we can help them -- and teach the parents -- and this would be an excellent way to do it. "
The Albas are both registered nurses; Donna works full-time dealing with orthopedic and urology patients, and Michael works part-time with bone marrow transplant patients and Wholesome Tummies.
Currently, the Albas have a contract with the Southminster School, which is located in Missouri City, and are securing more contracts with private and Montessori schools for the coming school year.
"Right now it is just Southminster School, and we are talking to another school -- we are hoping by the end of the month," he says. "Most of the schools have a lot of interest, but we are finding that because we got a late start, they have already signed contracts with different lunch providers. We are very excited for next school year."
Alba also hopes to attract preschools and Montessori schools as customers.
"We provide healthy, made-from-scratch lunches for mainly private schools, and there's no MSG, no high-fructose corn syrup, no artificial trans fats, no artificial flavors or colors and no artificial nitrates," Alba says. "We always use the highest-quality ingredients."
Each day's meals are prepared in the morning by a chef at an off-site location, ensuring that each item served is fresh. The month's menu is posted online for parents to review and choose the foods their children will eat daily. Nutritional information is also available for each item.
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Wholesome Tummies normally provides as many as ten or 12 options per day for students, but Southminster officials asked Alba to limit the choices to two or four per day in order to make deciding what to eat much easier. In addition, vegetarian options are always included on the menu.
The lunches served by Wholesome Tummies are loaded with nutrients to keep students satisfied throughout the afternoon so they don't get afternoon hunger pangs -- a common problem with fried foods and simple carbohydrates.
"They [the students] love the food," Alba says. "They say it tastes really good. They are often surprised that it is made from scratch...The kids' favorites that we have found are mostly mac 'n' cheese, barbecue chicken, chicken tenders [and] spaghetti."
A first glance at these lunch items might make you ask, how is this healthier? Granted, these foods do not seem any different from what is served at most schools; however, Alba explains that the use of fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole-wheat products, makes Wholesome Tummies lunches much healthier for students.
For example, the spaghetti sauce is made from scratch with fresh ingredients, the pasta is whole wheat and the flour used to make the chocolate chip cookies is whole wheat as well.
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Portion sizes are different for younger and older students, but the lunch is assembled in the same manner. Each student has the choice of an entrée, two sides, a salad and a "creation," or dessert. Organic milk and water are also served as beverage options.
Wholesome Tummies' website compares fast food, fast-casual dining menu items and popular grocery store brands with the same type of lunch offered through its lunch service. The macaroni and cheese offered by Wholesome Tummies not only has nearly half as many ingredients as Panera Bread's macaroni and cheese, but it has half as many grams of fat, more protein and half as many milligrams of sodium.
Serving healthy, fresh school lunches is definitely a step in the right direction to improving overall health in Houston.
"It's more than a lunch," Alba says. "It's a movement."