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Changing Baltimore’s Diet

Nearly 40 years ago, before “organic” and “farm-to-table” became buzzwords in the food community, Antonia Demas realized the importance of promoting nutritional education in schools. Her philosophy was simple: If students are taught about healthy food in a positive and engaging way, they will be more willing to eat those healthy foods, both in the classroom and at home.

That philosophy eventually developed into a comprehensive curriculum called “Food Is Elementary” — widely regarded by nutrition educators as one of the most effective approaches to encouraging students to eat healthier. T. Colin Campbell, a professor of nutrition and biochemistry at Cornell University, endorsed the program, saying Demas’ “curriculum ought to be in every school in the country.” To date, “Food Is Elementary” has been taught in more than 2,000 schools across the country.

Fifteen of those schools are in Baltimore, a city not exactly known as a bastion of healthy living. A 2007 report by the Centers for Disease Control found that 18 percent of high school students in Baltimore were obese, compared to 13 percent overall in the state of Maryland. Part of the disproportionate effect may stem from socioeconomics. Recent studies showed that 14 percent of Baltimore’s low-income families did not have access to healthy food, such as fruits and vegetables. Many of those families depend on the school lunch program to feed their kids — 73 percent of Baltimore students qualify to receive free or reduced lunch from the program.

But, there are signs that change is on the way. The Baltimore school lunch program underwent significant reform this year, with Meatless Mondays instituted in the cafeterias, healthy snacks substituted for junk food in vending machines and more local ingredients on the menu.

However, even with these new practices, one large hurdle remains: Persuading students to actually eat the healthier options. And that problem is precisely what Antonia Demas is trying to solve with “Food Is Elementary.”

How Antonia Demas fights resistance

In the late 1960s, Demas moved to Vermont with her family and volunteered at the local Head Start center. While volunteering at the school, she noticed that the food served to the children was not thdixe healthiest. “I thought I could concentrate my volunteer efforts on improving the quality of the food and teaching kids about nutrition and cooking,” she said.

As she led more cooking and nutrition classes, Demas noticed a trend. “When kids literally have a hand in preparing healthy food, they are more willing — and even excited — to try it,” she said. “Kids aren’t the problem in terms of eating healthy food. It’s the way we introduce food to them that’s the problem.”

Using this observation as her guide, Demas created hands-on, food-based units of study designed to engage students with healthy eating. “The lessons use food as a vehicle to incorporate a variety of subjects, from science to math to art to culture,” Demas said.

In one lesson, for example, children build whole-grain gingerbread houses, utilizing their geometry, art and science skills.

Despite her 25 years of experience, Demas believed fellow educators weren’t taking her seriously. “Some thought it was just ‘women’s work,'” she sighed. To counter that bias and provide concrete research of her program’s efficacy, she enrolled in Cornell University’s doctoral program in nutrition, education and anthropology. Her dissertation, which was eventually published as “Food Is Elementary,” won national awards for excellence in nutritional education and creativity in implementing U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines. She later founded the Food Studies Institute, a nonprofit based in Trumansburg, N.Y., dedicated to improving children’s health through sensory-based nutrition education.

‘Food Is Elementary’ arrives in Baltimore

In 2003, Demas brought “Food Is Elementary” to her first Baltimore public school, Hampstead Hill Academy, thanks to a grant from the Weinberg Foundation. The Stadium School was added the next year, after Demas acquired additional money from Baltimore-based foundations and national organizations such as the National Gardening Association. Today, 15 city schools in Baltimore have used the program on some level, including Hampstead Hill Academy, the pre-kindergarten-to-eighth-grade school that first adopted “Food Is Elementary.”

The program, renamed “Food for Life” at Hampstead Hill Academy, includes an after-school culinary club, monthly community dinners that students prepare for parents and school staff, food-based murals painted on the cafeteria walls designed by students and artists, a custom-built kitchen, and a school garden. “It’s exciting to be a part of something cutting-edge in terms of providing lots of information and hands-on activity for kids around nutrition,” Principal Matthew Hornbeck said in a video promoting the “Food for Life” program.

But, because of budget cuts, the Stadium School, which was the second school to implement Demas’ program, has struggled financially to keep the program running. Lack of space also has been a problem. This year, the school’s food educator, Catherine Dixon, resorted to moving from classroom to classroom to teach, hauling all of her materials and ingredients on a cart.

Despite the lack of resources, Demas applauds the Stadium School for its loyalty to the program. “The principal is very committed to the program’s mission,” she said. Ronald Shelley, principal of the Stadium School, echoed these sentiments. “Students become what they eat,” he said. “When they eat well, they perform well. We need to change the culture around what our students eat.”

Funding is the single-largest hurdle for Demas. She strongly believes that long-term funding from the schools is necessary for the program to be financially sustainable, especially considering the hefty startup fees. Implementing “Food Is Elementary” in 130 Baltimore elementary and middle schools for 130,000 students would cost $2,970,630 for one school year. That breaks down to $22,851 per school.

But instead of focusing on the initial costs, which include the food educator’s salary, benefits, ingredients and equipment, Demas urges schools to consider the following: A study conducted by a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University found that “Food Is Elementary” costs just $228.51 per student per year. By contrast, the average yearly medical costs associated with Type 2 Diabetes come to a grand total of $6,650.

Putting food educators on staff

Although challenges remain, Demas is optimistic, given the enormous change she has witnessed in Baltimore during the past seven years. “When I first started working here, there was very little going on in terms of food education,” she said. “But now, there is growing support for this type of work, and lots of community efforts have sprung up all over the city, especially with gardens.” Her long-term goal is to have a food educator on staff (paid for by the district) in every school in the country.

Demas also noted how food education is becoming a cause celebre nationally, thanks to Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” and Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign. While grateful for the positive exposure, she is saddened that it has taken so long for Americans to realize the gravity of the situation. “Unfortunately, it took the devastating consequences of poor eating — from diabetes to obesity to heart disease — to bring the issue to the forefront,” she said.

Mackie Jimbo
is a Washington, D.C.-based food writer who writes about her budget-friendly dining adventures at her website, The Unpaid Gourmet.

Photos, from top:
Catherine Dixon, food educator at the Stadium School, teaching “Food Is Elementary.”
Mural at Stadium School.
Credits: Mackie Jimbo