According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), childhood obesity in the United States has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years. The result? One-third of US children and adolescents are overweight or obese.
To help address these alarming statistics, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) last year released new standards for school meals as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act championed by first lady Michelle Obama. Among the changes is a requirement that both fruits and vegetables be offered every day as part of a school’s meal program. Many states and localities have also joined the movement to get their children back in shape. In 2010, the DC City Council passed the Healthy Schools Act (HSA), a landmark piece of legislation that made health and wellness a priority for the city’s public and charter schools.
Thanks to changes in nutritional guidelines, school lunches are getting healthier. The question is, will kids actually eat them? A recent article in The Washington Post described several anecdotes in which school children, despite having access to healthy food, found creative ways to avoid eating it. Karissa McCarthy of DC Greens emphasized the importance of getting kids to take ownership over what they eat. “It’s so great that we serve nutritious food in the cafeteria, but if kids don’t know what kale is, they’re not going to touch it when it’s on their cafeteria tray. So the education piece is critical.”
Getting kids to try new fruits and vegetables is the goal of Fresh Feature Friday, a program initiated by one of the city’s school meal vendors, DC Central Kitchen. Every Friday at a different District school, kids are presented with a fruit or vegetable they typically avoid, such as brussels spouts. The item is prepared three different ways for the kids to try. They then vote on which one they like the most, and that item is added to the menu the following month. At one middle school, participation in the lunch program rose from 60 to 96 percent upon piloting the program.
Exposing kids to healthier eating habits doesn’t stop in the cafeteria. Increasingly, schools are working to connect children directly with the source of their food through farm-to-school and school gardening programs. Organizations like DC Greens are working with District teachers to provide resources they can use in their classrooms to teach about the food system, nutrition and healthy eating. Teachers are encouraged to take students out to the school gardens, which now exist in about 40 percent of DC schools. DC Greens also publishes a field trip guide that promotes school visits to area gardens and farms.
One popular field trip destination is Common Good City Farm, DC’s largest urban farm that yielded more than 6,300 pounds of fresh produce last year. As part of its mission to “grow food, educate and help low-income DC community members meet their food needs,” the farm offers a Youth Education Program. According to the program’s director, Elizabeth Packer,
“It’s a place where kids can learn about foods, get connected to where their food comes from, and get exposed to new vegetables,” adding, “It’s kind of surprising to see how little people know about where their food comes from.”
Field trips typically involve children breaking into groups and rotating through different stations with activities involving identifying plants grown on the farm, composting, learning about bees and other insects, and doing a bit of farm work such as weeding and planting. Students also have a chance to harvest and taste some of the farm’s bounty.
In addition to serving as a field trip site for the city’s schools, Common Good City Farm hosts an after school program during the warmer weather. “For most of the kids from the neighborhood, this is their first interaction with the farm and with these plants,” noted Packer. At the program, children spend a lot of time identifying different vegetables, looking at the plants and learning how they grow. Typically they will also harvest one of the vegetables, which is then made into a healthy snack using the farm’s outdoor kitchen. “We got a lot of kids excited about eggplant last year,” said Packer.
Common Good also launched a summer work program last year for teens in the DC area.
Teens must apply to get one of the 16 available slots for a paying position on the farm. Those selected into the program do fieldwork and learn hands-on farming skills, but that isn’t all. They also participate in workshops on topics ranging from sustainable agriculture to food justice issues to more practical life skills, like public speaking and how to open a bank account.
Combining agriculture and education is not a new idea in the District. The Washington Youth Garden located in the National Arboretum provides year-round programs for students and teachers about environmental science, gardening and nutrition. In nearby Alexandria, Virginia, the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture also offers hands-on lessons about the food system. With the help of organizations like DC Greens, other farms are now starting to develop lesson plans for student visits based on the District’s educational standards of learning (SOLs.) Some farms, like Common Good, also take their lessons into the classrooms during the winter months. DC Greens is also working with teachers to integrate lessons about the food system into their existing curriculum.
For DC schools, the culmination of food system lesson plans occurs during Growing Healthy Schools Week, a city-wide celebration of farm-to-school and school garden programming that takes place in October. Last year 62 schools and about 10,000 students participated in the celebration, which included panel discussions, farmer visits and garden tours. There was even a Saturday bike tour of several school gardens across the city that families could participate in.
During last year’s event, DC Greens also worked with the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington and other local chefs to arrange 35 cooking demonstrations throughout area schools. Chefs went into classes ranging from grades K through 8 to prepare healthy, seasonal dishes. Karissa McCarthy had this to say after observing kids tasting things and watching the cooking demonstrations: “It didn’t really matter what was being prepared, as long as kids were excited about it and felt like they had a role in making the dish, they all tried it. There’s that investment.”
Or as someone once said, kids who grow kale AND learn how to make it into a delicious dish, eat kale.
Images Courtesy of DC Greens