Every weekday, 31 million children shuffle into our nation’s school cafeterias to quell their grumbling bellies. And what do they find?
A lunch tray with less than $1 spent on the actual food. Vending machines stocked with junk food and soda. Cheetos covered with melted cheese. Just enough time between bells to drink lunch from a can instead of time to dine, to actually sit and chew. See for yourself.
Such scenes pose this unavoidable question: Is today’s school food environment failing our kids?
I firmly believe that school meal programs are an integral part of a child’s health, education and development. They are also the frontlines in the fight against childhood obesity. That’s one of the reasons I co-founded FoodCorps, which will start placing AmeriCorps members in schools next year to improve access to healthy, affordable school meals.
As bluntly laid out in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s report “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2010,” nine states have child/adolescent obesity rates above 20 percent. Our children’s poor health has even become a national security threat. The report by Mission: Readiness called “Too Fat to Fight” found that one out of every four young adults is too overweight to join our country’s armed services.
According to other research, more than half of school kids’ daily calories come from school food programs: breakfast, lunch and snacks. It follows that much of their eating habits are shaped in school. We need to take care of this captive audience. If we provide healthy food in the cafeteria, nutrition education in the classroom and hands-on learning through school gardens, a lifetime of healthy eating can take root.
Two programs — school gardens and Farm to School — are particularly effective, and that’s where FoodCorps comes in. Working in school districts suffering disproportionate rates of childhood obesity, FoodCorps service members will build and tend school gardens, conduct nutrition education and facilitate Farm to School programming that brings local, high-quality food into schools. The program will at once serve vulnerable children by improving access to healthy, affordable school meals, while also training a cadre of leaders for careers in food and agriculture.
A study on school garden programs published last year (done by four PhDs, including the current Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Kathleen Merrigan), found that they cost-effectively increase students’ consumption and preference for vegetables. As a bonus, students learned to identify vegetables correctly. These findings validate what Farm to School advocates like me know from experience: When children have access to growing food, they try it and like it.
Certainly, not every child is going to eat her Brussels sprouts with gastronomical gusto at first, but research shows that children participating in Farm to School programs do eat an additional serving of fruits and vegetables each day. That’s no small achievement when, right now, only 2 percent of kids are getting their USDA recommended number of fruit and vegetable servings.
Over 2,000 Farm to School programs are under way, yet why aren’t they in all our schools? What I consistently hear from parents and school staff is this: “Oh, we love Farm to School and we love school gardens, but our budgets are tight. We just don’t have the staffing to pull it off.”
That’s what I hope FoodCorps will remedy. If our FoodCorps members can help improve America’s school meals, we will give kids a fighting chance for a passing grade in health. As Timothy Cipriano, executive director of food services for the New Haven, Conn., public schools proclaims, “One little tomato can change a whole generation of kids.”