Kids CAN make healthy food choices: Education is key
By Anupama Joshi, Executive Director of the National Farm to School Network
While politicians in Washington debate implementation of school nutrition standards, the next generation’s leaders are sitting in a school cafeteria, deciding whether or not broccoli salad is “gross.” In both cases, the stakes are high.
A 2012 study by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation predicted that obesity rates in the U.S. could exceed 44 percent by 2030, costing our country an additional $66 billion per year in medical expenses. But here’s the good news: After years of focused initiatives to address childhood health and nutrition, including the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, obesity rates among children are on the decline.
And there’s more good news. In the great eat-it-or-toss-it debate that plays out in lunchrooms across America, schools have a powerful tool. More than 23 million students are now more likely to say yes to broccoli salad – as well as other healthy fruits and veggies, like roasted sweet potatoes, carrot sticks and watermelon salsa – thanks to their school’s participation in farm to school. Farm to school activities enrich the connection kids have with fresh, healthy food and local farmers by changing food purchasing and education practices at schools and preschools. Kids gain access to healthy, local foods in their cafeteria as well as education opportunities such as school gardens, cooking lessons and farm field trips.
Research shows that kids eat what they know and toss what they don’t, and there’s no better way to know your food than getting your hands dirty in a garden. Local food tastes better in many cases, too, because it has been picked ripe and delivered fresh.
Implementing farm to school practices does take time and effort, but new data released this month by the USDA shows that more than 40,000 schools across all 50 states and D.C. are already engaging in farm to school activities thanks to hard-working school nutrition professionals, farmers, parents, teachers and community partners. Most schools start small: a garden patch, samples of local foods or perhaps a visit from a farmer during National Farm to School Month in October.
Farm to school is a critical tool for school nutrition professionals, who are superheroes navigating a complex, underfunded and demanding system every day. Students who are properly introduced to new foods through farm to school are more likely to participate in their school’s meal plan and less likely to waste food, which results in a better bottom line and healthier kids.
We don’t expect children to master riding a bike without a little practice and training. Nor do we expect them to succeed in calculus without first learning algebra. Why, then, are children expected to immediately like new foods without a little instruction or practice? Research says kids need to try new foods anywhere from 7 to 15 times before they acquire a taste for them. Farm to school activities serve as the “training wheels” that introduce children to new food options, setting them up for a lifelong ride of healthy eating.
The new school meal standards are based on sound science and recommendations from the non-partisan Institute of Medicine. They provide a clear roadmap of changes needed to reverse childhood obesity. We shouldn’t be debating if or when the standards should be implemented, we should be working to ensure that all students have access to farm to school activities so their daily decision whether to try or toss a new food ends on the correct side of the trashcan.
FoodTalks: Stories of motivation and change from FoodCorps service members
FoodCorps, a nationwide team of AmeriCorps leaders that brings farm to school in 15 states around the country, convened in Austin, Texas in April as part of NFSN's National Farm to Cafeteria Conference. At the conference they shared FoodTalks, an evening of stories about farm to school in action. Seven service members and one alum speaker gave short, engrossing talks about what motivates them to serve, and how they know they are succeeding.
When Stephanie finished culinary school, the only career path she imagined was one in restaurants. After a year of FoodCorps service in Arizona with Tohono O'odham Community Action, she realized there were opportunities to do great and rewarding work in the world of school food. She also realized that school cooks are "rock stars. This is her story:
FoodCorps will be adding more of the talks to their YouTube channel in the coming weeks. Subscribe to stay in the loop!
New USDA census results show 23.5 million kids participating in farm to school
This week the USDA released the final results of the Farm to School Census, a first-of-its-kind effort to measure the amount and type of farm to school activity taking place across the country. Initial results were released last year, but the data now includes new or updated information from 1,500 school districts, resulting in an overall school district response rate of 75 percent. The data reflects farm to school activity during the 2011 - 2012 school year.
The new census data is also packaged in an updated website that offers a customized search tool, raw data downloads and infographics, all aimed at helping users find and share detailed information and local statistics. The survey results demonstrate that farm to school is taking root across America, impacting the health of kids and their communities:
- 23.5 million kids are participating in farm to school activities
- 40, 328 schools are using farm to school practices
- $385+ million dollars were spent on local food for schools
Since our network first took shape in 2007, we have encouraged the expansion of farm to school practices across the country by serving as a resource and information hub for communities working to bring local food sourcing and food and agriculture education into school systems and preschools. We advocated for and informed the content of the census, and we applaud the USDA Farm to School Program for their great execution of this important piece of work. We are thrilled that farm to school is quickly becoming the rule rather than the exception and that we have the data to prove it!