To Your Health

Food Fight

Many school lunches are still lacking. A few schools have taken matters into their own hands.

Food Fight
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When Michelle Obama began her campaign against children’s obesity back in 2009, she challenged the nation to improve school lunches and give children access to fresh fruit and vegetables. Abbie Nelson, director of Vermont FEED, a regional school food education organization, keeps her organization focused on the “three C’s - classrooms, cafeterias, and communities (and local farms).” Vermont FEED helps children understand where their food comes from as well as how their choices impact the world. Each year, more than 27 trillion meals (yes!) are served to our children via federally sponsored programs, so the power of the three C’s can have a rather significant impact on our youthful population.

Farm-to-table programs are blossoming in some rather urban locations. Deborah Osborne, after-school director at New York City’s P.S. 11, helped create a weekly farm market run by the third-grade students. Parents, teachers, students and passersby can purchase produce which the children weigh and sell under Osborne’s careful supervision. A brand new chicken coop, erected by parent volunteers, proudly sits in a corner of the schoolyard., Nine heritage egg layers were procured with the help of the non-profit organization JustFood in conjunction with the Queens County Farm. The school raised $100 towards maintenance of the coop in a raffle, the prize being a dozen eggs. One parent at the school, Karina Volvousky, summed up the success of the school’s program, saying, “If my second grade daughter knows I bought the vegetable from a kid who runs the school farm, she’ll eat it,” citing peppers, carrots, apples, and pears as her child’s new favorites. She says the school promotes eating foods of different colors and her daughter likes “teaching” her about them.

Columbia Grammar School, also in New York City, has a student-run market, garden and a specially designed kitchen complete with personal chef.  Kindergarten through fourth-grade students have the opportunity to bake zucchini bread (made with whole wheat flour) and cook fresh applesauce. The cafeteria serves local butternut squash soup and ‘slow roasted charred tomatoes.’ Fourth-grade student Isabelle Krugman sums up the new cross-curricular program: “My friends and I take it seriously. I don’t remember what I’ve tried, but I know I am eating things I never ate before. I liked being a salesperson and using a computer to add up all the money.”

Dr. Laurie Brodsky is a naturopathic physician who educates public-school children about healthy food choices. In working with third and fourth graders, she found that many had firmly entrenched dietary habits and would sneak junk food while she was lecturing. Younger children, on the other hand, were more amenable to change and embraced healthy food; they were rewarded with a fitness class or a special snack if they filled their plates with multi-colored produce. Brodsky has teamed up with several food companies like LaraBar, Little Duck Organics, Purely Elizabeth, and Fearless Chocolate who donate products to her initiative.

One educator-turned-community organizer, Stephen Ritz, has created an organization called The Green Bronx Machine. He operates in Harlem and the South Bronx, two areas of New York City with some of the highest rates of obesity, asthma, diabetes and other diet-related illnesses in the country. He harnesses the power of food, calling his intergenerational initiative “Teaching Grandma.” “If we connect with the grandmother in these communities, we are connecting with the whole family," he says. "Kids teach grandma how to use the computer and grandma teaches kids to cook; we’re broadening their palate and increasing test scores and increasing literacy.”

A recent article in The New York Times depicts middle- and upper-school students rejecting the new ‘good-for-you’ school lunches. The article cites research that shows children must be exposed to vegetables 10-12 times before they will eat them on their own.

So perhaps when we offer a lunch of roasted chickpeas with basil pesto over whole grain rotini with garlic and herbs (the 9/24/12 menu from the New York City Department of Education SchoolFood program), the most effective strategy may be to simply sit back and wait for them to get hungry.

To Your Health!