By Alyssa Casey
In the United States, the National Gardening Association educates students about the health benefits of eating plant-based food through a variety of publications written specifically for school communities. Resources such as Botany on Your Plate: Investigating the Plants We Eat and Nourishing Choices: Implementing Food Education in Classrooms, Cafeterias, and Schoolyards provide innovative plans and tools for bringing plant and nutrition education into the classroom, as well as connecting children to their local food economy.
Botany on Your Plate offers a series of life science classroom lessons targeted specifically at grades K-4. Each lesson studies a different category of plant, such as fruits or flowers, or a different plant part, such as roots or leaves, with the aim of helping children develop a well-rounded knowledge of many edible plants. Students work in pairs or groups studying, dissecting, and recording observations about the plants, while teachers explain the functions of each plant part as well as the nutritional benefits that the plants can offer. The lessons also suggest plant-based snack items to feed students, exposing them to foods they may never have tried.
Botany on Your Plate incorporates diverse educational subjects into its lessons. Students enhance language and writing skills by learning plant vocabulary and journaling about observations and tastings. They gain scientific understanding when learning plant parts or thinking about a plant’s role in the ecosystem, and explore artistic skills when drawing and labeling plant diagrams. Each lesson offers step-by-step instructions and suggestions for tailoring activities to different skill levels. The book also contains a master list of supplies and produce for each lesson, a collection of plant diagrams and nutrition labels, and a glossary of terms that students can learn.
The second publication, Nourishing Choices, takes a broader approach, highlighting projects and procedures for bringing food, nutrition, and plant education into schools on a larger scale. From initial assessments, to the integration of food education into curricula, to the addition of healthier options in the lunchroom, the publication serves as a roadmap for schools and school districts. The abundance of ideas allows school communities to select programs that fit their size, scope, and needs. Profiles of successful projects around the country—including school garden programs, field trips to local farms, and even school food labs where students actually prepare lunch—offer ideas and advice to communities that are just beginning to implement food education programs.
Nourishing Choices also focuses on bringing healthier, more locally grown food into school cafeterias. School districts may start by making small changes, such as using ovens for roasting fresh vegetables instead of reheating pre-made lunch food, or bringing in local chefs to demonstrate for cafeteria staff new, simple ways to cut and prepare fresh foods. The publication insists that involving students is a significant factor in the success of lunchroom programs. If kids get involved by contributing recipe ideas or setting up food-tasting stations for their fellow students, they are more likely to be excited and open to trying new, healthier foods.
Both Botany on Your Plate and Nourishing Choices not only aim to provide food education in the classroom, but they seek to connect food education to homes, local farms, and communities. This enables students to think about where their food comes from and how it gets to their plates, and to understand that science and food are human endeavors. Newsletters sent home with students, reminders for kids to browse their home kitchens, and the encouragement of parent involvement all help children transfer food knowledge from the classroom into their homes. Expanding food education in schools and at home helps students realize that what they eat significantly affects the world around them.
What connections are schools in your communities making to food education and the local community? Let us know in the comments below!
Alyssa Casey is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s food and agriculture program.