As summer comes to an end, school is just around the corner for children across the United States. For children enrolled in state schools, this typically means the return of unhealthy lunches that are best described as “fast food”: hamburgers, chicken nuggets, fried snacks, and sugary soft drinks. Yet school lunch programs can play a key role in reinforcing healthy eating behaviors by integrating such measures as school gardens, nutrition education, locally sourced organic food, and efforts that affirm the value of mealtimes.
School feeding programs can play an important role in improving nutritional-intake for children worldwide. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
Childhood obesity is a major problem in North America, where annual obesity rates have seen significant gains in recent decades. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of U.S. children and adolescents aged 2–19 are obese, nearly triple the share in 1980. Many studies document the connection between a school’s food environment and dietary behaviors in children. As anyone who grew up in the U.S. public school system can attest, lunches served in the country are highly processed and high in sodium, sugar, and fat.
Initiatives that connect schoolchildren to fresh, healthy foods and that encourage healthy eating habits from a young age are critical to ending the obesity endemic. One example is the U.S.-based 30 Project, which brings together key organizations and activists working on hunger, obesity, and agriculture to talk about their visions for the food system over the next 30 years. The effort is exploring long-term solutions to address obesity and improve the food system by ensuring that everyone has easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables, among other goals.
With children preparing to begin the school year, Nourishing the Planet offers the following five solutions for schools to encourage healthy eating:
- Connect Local Farmers to Schools: Providing locally sourced foods in school cafeterias improves diets and strengthens local economies. The U.S. state of Vermont is a leader in the nationwide Farm to School movement, which integrates food and nutrition education into classroom curricula and serves local foods in school cafeterias. Over the past decade, 60 percent of Vermont schools have joined the effort, forming a statewide network aided by the state’s Agency of Agriculture, Department of Health, and Department of Education. Children benefit from farm-fresh foods for breakfast and lunch, and local farmers expand their business into a market worth over $40 million. Urban areas across the United States, from New York to Los Angeles, are also participating in this growing movement.
- Savor Mealtimes: Emphasizing the importance of mealtimes teaches children to appreciate the value and taste of good food. France, which has one of the lowest rates of childhood obesity in Europe, takes lunch very seriously. School lunches are well funded, and every part of the meal is prepared on school grounds in professional-grade kitchens—a stark contrast to the heat-and-serve kitchens in U.S. schools. Kids from preschool to high school are served four- to five-course meals and are encouraged to take time eating and socializing with friends. At some schools, detailed menus even suggest what parents should serve their children for dinner. Soft drink and snack machines are banned from school premises.
- Implement School Gardens: School gardens provide hands-on opportunities for children to cultivate and prepare organic produce. In the United States, REAL School Gardens creates learning gardens in elementary schools in high-poverty areas of north Texas. The organization has found that the school gardens not only nurture healthy lifestyles and environmental stewardship, but can also improve academic achievement through active participation. REAL School Gardens supports 81 schools, providing daily access to nature for more than 45,000 children and 2,700 educators.
- Nutrition Education: The city of Chicago’s public school district doesn’t offer mandatory nutrition education as part of its curriculum. To fill this void, the nonprofit Communities in Schools of Chicago (CISC) connects 170 schools to volunteer professionals who run a broad range of programs that address the social, emotional, health, and enrichment needs of students. Demand for nutrition classes has almost tripled in the past four years. This is due in part to the results of a Personal Health Inventory administered by CISC to more than 5,000 students, which showed that nutrition was the lowest scoring area.
- Equal Access to Healthy Foods: Childhood obesity disproportionately affects low-income families that may not be able to afford healthy foods. Schools in Greeley, Colorado, are taking a giant leap forward by cooking every meal from scratch. This is a much healthier alternative to the processed factory-food items that dominate school cafeterias today, and can be more cost effective for poorer school systems that take advantage of U.S. federal reimbursement rules. With 60 percent of the city’s students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals, Greeley is proving that it isn’t only rich school districts that can provide their children with healthy meals.
- The Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) coordinates relationships among school cafeterias and local food producers in California’s San Francisco Bay Area, bringing nutritious meals to students who might not otherwise be able to afford them.
- The Fresh from the Farm program in Chicago conducts classroom activities such as tastings, cooking demonstrations, visits from farmers, helping in school gardens, and field trips to local organic farms.
- Revolution Foods delivers tasty and healthy breakfasts, lunches, and snacks to schools in Colorado, California, and Washington, D.C. Many of the ingredients are organic and locally sourced, and no artificial flavors, trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup, or milk with hormones and antibiotics are used at all.
- Seeds of Nutrition helps schools in Atlanta, Georgia, start school gardens and teach children how to prepare delicious recipes using the fruits of their labor. The group also collaborates with teachers to create cross-curricular lessons that center on gardens and food.
- The Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California, is a one-acre organic garden and kitchen classroom where inner-city students at a local Middle School participate in all aspects of growing, harvesting, and preparing seasonal produce.
- New York City’s enormous school district used its market power to pressure vendors to reduce food prices and eliminate unhealthy items, including fried food, artificial ingredients, and trans fats, from its cafeterias. With this welcome change, many children now enjoy fresh fruit, salad bars, whole-grain breads and pasta, and foods made with low-fat and low-sodium recipes.
- In 2010, Italy adopted a nationwide policy to supply all school cafeterias with locally sourced organic food in an effort to curb childhood obesity and preserve culinary traditions. Seventy percent of all school cafeteria food in Rome is now organic, with ingredients coming from 400 Italian organic farms.
Obesity is an immense problem for children growing up in today’s world of processed junk food, but many opportunities exist to reverse this trend. Schools are the most efficient means of transmitting healthy behavioral changes that can last a lifetime to students, families, and communities. It all starts with connecting schools to the best foods available: fresh, organic, and local.