By Jenna Banning
Beyond the traditional lessons on reading, writing, and math, schools across America are now teaching their students about another crucially important subject that will build the foundation for the rest of their lives: nutrition.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 17 percent of children in America are obese. These children face higher risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other diseases when they become adults.
With approximately 55 million children enrolled in the U.S., schools can play a powerful role in the efforts to combat obesity. Every day, over 31 million children receive their lunches through the National School Lunch Program. These meals are subsidized the government, and made available to low-income students for free or reduced rates. In addition, by teaching children about agriculture, cooking, and gardening, students gain a greater appreciation and understanding of where their food comes from and how it is produced. Today, Nourishing the Planet highlights five initiatives helping to teach children about nutrition across the country.
1. Louisville, Kentucky
In 2003, according to a report by the Trust for America’s Health, Kentucky had the third highest level of overweight high school students, as well as the third highest number of low-income children between two and five years old in the country. Since then, Kentucky has made significant improvements in their school lunches and nutrition programs.
One organization, The Food Literacy Project at Oxmoor Farm, runs “Experiential Educational Programs” for school and community groups that allow participants to experience farm-life first hand. Visitors may learn how to bake bread from scratch, take a tasting tour of the farm, or study how the food in their lunches is grown. The farm, based out of Louisville, Kentucky, was just awarded a mini grant from the Healthy Hometown Movement, a state government program, and will be working this year with over 200 students to teach them about vegetable farming, physical activity, and where their food comes from.
2. St. Louis, Missouri
Missouri was recently ranked as the eleventh-most obese state in the country, with 31 percent of children ages 10-17 overweight. In addition, nearly one out of every four children in the state is hungry, a figure which has been rising since 2005 and now rates fifth-worst in the country.
But in St. Louis, a number of organizations have partnered together to improve the city’s approach towards nutrition and agriculture. In one exciting example, over 60 schools have partnered with Gateway Greening to build vegetable, native, multi-sensory (which incorporate scent, touch, and sound aspects in their design), and butterfly gardens. This organization, a non-profit organization started and based out of the city, provides the resources and guidance necessary for the schools to design and run their own unique gardens for students to learn about nature, nutrition, and even sell their own produce.
3. Greeley, Colorado
Although Colorado has the lowest obesity rate in the country, two recent reports, by Health Policy Solutions and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, warn that childhood obesity in Colorado increased by 23 percent between 2003 and 2007.
The organization Cook for America has partnered with a number of school districts across the state to redesign the operations and practices of school foodservice. The city of Greeley was recently highlighted by the New York Times for its participation in the program. Greeley’s Weld County School District 6 serves over 19,000 students, the majority of whom are low-income—60 percent of students qualify for free or reduced meals. To feed these students, the district has implemented a School Food Renaissance, which includes school gardens and Farm to School programs, connecting local farmers and students.
Weld County School District 6 also will begin phasing out processed and precooked meals this year through the training and resources provided by Cook for America, with the goal of providing all meals from scratch by the beginning of next school year. These moves are helping to show that foodservice reform, typically seen as too expensive or difficult for struggling school districts, can be affordable, successful, and delicious.
4. Boston, Massachusetts
Sugar sweetened beverages (SSB), which include sports drinks and soda, are increasingly popular among teenagers, yet present significant risks to their health. SSBs currently account for approximately 13 percent of all calories consumed by youth, and are the largest source of added sugar in children’s diets.
Yet in Boston, consumption of these drinks has actually gone down, according to the CDC. In 2004, Boston public schools passed a policy restricting sales of SSBs in schools. In a study conducted by the CDC, researchers analyzed consumption of SSBs in Boston high schools between 2004 and 2006, and compared them to national trends. The report found that while there was no change in consumption nationally, high school students in Boston’s public schools drank significantly less soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks. Following these findings, the Massachusetts Public Health Council issued new nutrition standards to take effect in 2013 that will eliminate sodas and other foods (including those with artificial sweeteners and trans fats) off school campuses statewide . As Angie Cradock, the report’s lead author, states, “This study shows that a very simple policy change can have a big impact on student behavior.”
5. Wilmington, Delaware
Twenty-eight percent of adults in Delaware are obese, according to the CDC, and childhood obesity is 33 percent. But battling obesity in Delaware has seen some progress recently – the rate of children classifying as overweight or obese has leveled off in the past years, defying the national trend.
Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids is a small non-profit based out of northern Delaware that partners with schools in the area to build school vegetable gardens. Created in 2005, the organization now works with students in every grade level in 11 schools. Through the “Education Cultivation” program, students plant, grow, and eat the vegetables from their gardens, learning valuable lessons about nutrition and science.
According to a report co-authored by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, and the National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education, “Enjoying and learning about food in childhood promotes good nutrition habits for a lifetime.” Through the efforts of schools and programs like these, children in America are now being provided with the lessons necessary to build a healthier future.
Jenna Banning is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.
To learn more about programs teaching children about nutrition and agriculture, see: Back to School and Back to Good Food, Nourishing the Planet TV: Agriculture Education in School, and Innovation of the Week: School Feeding Programs Improve Livelihoods, Diets, and Local Economies.