The new school food:
Plant it Grow it Eat it Learn it
Flowery School students celebrate an edible nasturtium from a school garden that has nourished generations of kids. Left to right are first-graders Natalia Carranza, Joel Chopin, Audrey Nelson, Bianca Carrillo, Marcello Saldana and Aiden Kovacs.
By the time today’s kindergartner finishes high school, she may have eaten well over 4,000 school meals—4,000 opportunities to strengthen her body and mind, introduce food pleasures that will make her a lifelong healthy eater, and deepen her engagement with the natural world. Multiply that child by the nearly 32 million children participating daily in the National School Lunch Program, funded with billions in taxpayer dollars, add thousands of school gardens and farm-to-school programs, and you have the ingredients for a movement that could remake how we eat and think about food. We could shepherd a generation of children into a healthier, more vibrant future.
Across the country today, children are discovering that tomatoes and onions and carrots, picked fresh and prepared with love, can be as appealing as junk food. Schools are using food as a focus to teach ecological principles, explore sustainability issues from world hunger to energy use, and awaken children’s wonder at the natural world.
The Center for Ecoliteracy, a Berkeley-based nonprofit whose mission is education for sustainable living, has been deeply involved in questions of school food reform since the center’s founding in 1995. During that time, it has seen both great potential for changing schools’ relationship with food and many challenges confronting that effort.
Why School Food?
Until recently, many would-be reformers have had to contend with administrators (and sometimes parents) who regarded school food as a fringe issue. The lunch period was perceived as a break from schools’ educational responsibilities, and mediocre meals were the norm. Critics disparaged the idea of school gardens, dismissing the notion as kids “playing in the dirt.”
That’s changing, at least in some places, including the Sonoma Valley. In response to an epidemic of obesity and diet-related illness, along with the attention of high-profile advocates including First Lady Michelle Obama and celebrity chefs, what our children are eating at school is getting more critical attention. Thanks to research confirming the link between nutrition and academic achievement and the efforts of many passionate parents and dedicated educators, the cafeteria has come under scrutiny.
School food is a public health issue. The crisis of diet-related illness is well documented. Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last 30 years, and half of overweight children stay overweight throughout adulthood. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, poor diet and physical inactivity are responsible for as many premature deaths as tobacco. Obesity increases the risk of disease, including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, stroke, osteoporosis, and many cancers.
It’s an economic issue. In April, a Cornell University study reported that obesity accounts for 21 percent of U.S. healthcare costs, more than $190 billion per year. Kenneth Thorpe, of Emory University, has projected that—if current trends continue—annual obesity-related medical expenses in the U.S. will rise to $344 billion by 2018. Meanwhile, the organization Action for Healthy Kids estimates that excessive absences by overweight children can cost an average-size school district $100,000 to $160,000 a year. A large district such as Los Angeles could lose $15 million a year.
It’s an academic performance issue. It’s no coincidence that many school districts offer free breakfasts on days that standardized tests are administered. A growing body of research connects better nutrition with increased cognitive function, attention, and memory. Hungry teens are more likely to be suspended from school, experience difficulty getting along with other children, and have fewer friends. Undernourished children are more apt to repeat a grade and require more special education and mental health services. Nutrient deficiencies, refined sugars and carbohydrates, pesticide residues, preservatives, and artificial colorings in food have all been associated with altered thinking and behavior as well as neurodevelopmental disorders.
It’s a social justice issue. School food is disproportionately important to students from low-income families. According to Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Tony Smith, “School food reform is not separate from school reform; it’s part of the basic work we have to do in order to correct systemic injustice, pursue
equity, and give our children the best future possible ... This starts with taking care of our students’ most basic needs, such as nutrition, so they can develop and reach their full potential.”
It’s a national security issue. The National School Lunch Program was created in part because tens of thousands of young men had been rejected for service during World War II due to malnutrition. In 2010 a national organization of retired admirals and generals testified before Congress that 27 percent of all Americans aged 17 to 24 are too overweight to enlist. Candidates failing physical exams due to weight-related issues increased by 70 percent between 1995 and 2010, and replacing enlistees discharged for weight problems costs over $60 million a year.
and exhibit increased self-esteem.
It’s an environmental issue. Of the many ways human activity has ecological effects, the manner is which we grow, process, harvest, transport, market, prepare, and dispose of food are among the most severe. Farming practices can deplete soil and create dead zones, or they can regenerate soil and enhance land productivity. Transporting food uses fossil fuel and creates pollution. Leftover packaging and uneaten food overflow landfills.
It’s a community issue. The experience of dining together builds community in homes, schools, and neighborhoods—the delights of a shared meal teaches children to appreciate alternatives to grab-and-go gobbling. Meals are a means to celebrate and strengthen cultural diversity and tradition. A schools’ investment in food programs promotes local farming and strengthens local economies.
School Gardens: Education from the Ground Up
The Center for Ecoliteracy’s involvement with school food began early in its history. In response to data that proved student cooperation increased and grades and retention improved when curriculum allowed hands-on project learning, the center was one of the original funders for Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley.
Gardens create excellent learning
opportunities. Children dig in (literally) to projects that matter and tend living things that they care about. Young people who garden regularly score better in science, reading, writing, and independent thinking, and exhibit increased self-esteem. Tracing the path of the seed from the soil to the plate teaches basic eco-literacy—the flow of energy, cycles of water and weather, the interdependent web of relations embodied in every bite we take.
But these lessons were too often undermined when students entered the lunchroom and encountered school menus: meals high in fat, calories, and sodium; heavily processed entrees that have been shipped thousands of miles; soft drink machines in the hallway; and junk food on sale in competition with the school meal program. So, the Center for Ecoliteracy joined the movement to reinvent school food.
Rethinking School Lunch
Recognising the importance of improved school nutrition is one thing, but making permanent change is another. The school food system in the United States is a complex hierarchy, stretching from decisions on a single campus to policies of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Objectives are mixed. The U.S. school lunch program has been charged simultaneously with promoting children’s health and creating a market for American agriculture—complementary goals when the chief nutritional problem was undernourishment, but a conflict of interest once the problem became too many calories.
School food service is often expected to operate in the black or even to generate a profit for the district, in spite of minimal government reimbursements. Many districts have abandoned labor-intensive preparations and relied on prepackaged meals for so long that they now lack adequate facilities. Cooking healthier foods requires new menus, procurement systems, and the acquisition of different skills by food service staff.
Addressing these issues necessitates effort at multiple levels and from several directions: bottom up, top down, inside out, and outside in. The center’s seminal thesis, “Rethinking School Lunch,” identifies 10 interrelated aspects of school food operations: food and health, wellness, teaching and learning, the dining experience, procurement, facilities, finances, waste management, professional development, and marketing and communications. An extensive online guide is available on their Web site.
The web of connections within the framework is key: Schools can begin their unique transformations within any one of the 10 pathways. The pathways helped catalyze Berkeley Unified’s groundbreaking school food policy, which inspired the federally mandated implementation of a wellness policy at every American public school.
To help food services make a transition to menus incorporating more local, fresh food, in 2011 the center published a cookbook and professional development guide, Cooking with California Food in K–12 Schools, by award-winning cookbook authors Georgeanne Brennan and Ann M. Evans. The book, in English and Spanish, introduces a menu-planning concept based on six dishes students know and love, five ethnic flavor profiles, and four seasons. It has been downloaded more than 20,000 times.
School food has suffered long enough from neglect and disparagement. Lunchrooms can promote student well-being while teaching by example about good nutrition. Schools are finding ways to integrate gardening and cooking experiences with classroom teaching, focusing on the connections between food, personal and community health, and the natural world. The challenges are real, but so is the hope for realizing an alternative vision: healthy children ready to learn, food-literate graduates, invigorated local communities, sustainable agriculture, and a renewed environment.
For more information about the Center for Ecoliteracy, or to download Cooking with California Food in K-12 Schools, go to ecoliteracy.org/downloads/rethinking-school-lunch-guide or call 510.845.4595.