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TEDxManhattan: Changing The Way Kids Eat In Schools

Della Davidson Elementary School students enjoy lettuce for lunch from their school garden plots Credit: Sunny Young

Della Davidson Elementary School students enjoy lettuce for lunch from their school garden plots Credit: Sunny Young

Some volleys in the battle to make school food healthier can sting.

“I was told after removing chicken nuggets from the menu that I was taking all the fun out of school lunch, which was a pretty harsh thing to be told,” said Sunny Young, Program Manager of Good Food for Oxford Schools, an initiative to improve the nutrition of cafeteria meals and educate students and their families in Oxford, Miss., about better food choices.

AUTHOR


PamWeisz of Change Food

Pam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

But, Young said, “We make decisions based on the welfare of our children.”

Young spoke at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference in March featuring leading innovators in the food movement, citing dire statistics demonstrating a critical need for better food choices.

Forty percent of Mississippi’s children are overweight or obese, she said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity is linked to heightened risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, bone and joint problems and sleep apnea, as well as social and psychological problems.

“In order to change these really scary statistics, we need a paradigm shift in the way that we think about food and the way we eat food,” Young said.

She cited reasons for hope. A recent evaluation of Good Food for Oxford Schools, conducted jointly by the University of Mississippi’s Center for Population Studies and the university’s Department of Nutrition and Hospitality Management, showed that the program is having an impact.

“What we’re doing is working,” she said.  “It’s changing eating habits,” at school and at home.

The program has a three-pronged approach, working in the cafeteria, the classroom and the community.  In school cafeterias, she said, “We are transforming what the kids are seeing on their trays,” with menus featuring more fresh, local food.  The proportion of the cafeteria menu cooked from scratch grew from 30% to 75% during the 2013-14 school year.

That startling increase came from replacing overly processed items with whole food — for instance, replacing those sacrosanct chicken nuggets with baked chicken. Newly trained staff also replaced frozen foods with items such as pot pies and stir-fried foods. They tapped into recipes from TheLunchBox.org, a site started by Chef Ann Cooper, a longtime advocate for healthier school food (and Young’s boss before she came to Oxford).

The “Harvest of the Month” program in the cafeterias helps promote the use of more local food, with the added incentive of a sticker for younger kids who try something new.

But, she noted, “You can’t just put this food in front of kids and expect that they’re going to love it and eat it.”

That’s where the classroom lessons come in:

“We get them to touch and feel foods, Young said. “We bring in the farmer. We bring in chefs. They do cooking demos in the classroom. We really allow students to experience the joy of food.”

The district’s middle and high schools now have salad bars, and Young’s goal is to get them in elementary schools during the current school year.

The older kids’ incentives: more control over their schools’ food choices.

“Stickers and dressing up like a carrot doesn’t work so well,” Young said of the middle and high school crowd. “So what we’ve done is empower the students themselves.”

Young launched food clubs in the district’s middle and high school, where students cook, eat and learn together. The club also provides suggestions to improve cafeteria menus.

Oxford Elementary School students try broccoli flowers they have grown in their school garden plot. Credit: Sunny Young

Oxford Elementary School students try broccoli flowers they have grown in their school garden plot. Credit: Sunny Young

School gardens are also part of the program, and will be expanded this year thanks to an AmeriCorps-affiliated FoodCorps member now working with the program. Young is working to get schools to incorporate the gardens into the curriculum, but the gardens are already having an impact.  She noted that when a group of third-graders was asked last year to draw a carrot, all the students involved in the school garden program drew it growing underground, unlike the other children who simply drew carrots without any context.

Community steps up

The third piece of Good Food for Oxford Schools’ work is in the community. The program works with farmers markets and organizes community events, such as a Gospel Choir Showcase that featured choirs singing on the Oxford town square interspersed with messages about Good Food for Oxford Schools and food samples from the improved school menu.

Young’s goal for the school year is to expand the program to reach more kids and families.  She was recently named state co-lead for Mississippi for the National Farm to School Network.

She’s now working to connect programs across the state that are doing similar work, and is organizing a Farm to Cafeteria conference for later in the school year.

“The people of Mississippi have embraced this project,” Young said.  “Good food can change everything.

Main photo: Della Davidson Elementary School students enjoy lettuce for lunch from their school garden plots. Credit: Sunny Young

Pam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.



Zester Daily Soapbox contributor Change Food is a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Through special projects and events, it highlights what can and is being done to dismantle the ill effects of industrial agriculture as well as promoting sustainable solutions so that all people have access to healthy, nutritious food. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

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