In an interview for a nutrition policy internship last week, the interviewer asked me what I thought was the most important nutrition issue today, something to the effect of, “If you could wave your wand, what is the one thing you would change?” I first mentioned how much of our dysfunctional food environment can be traced to commodity crop subsidies, but in the end I picked something a bit more adaptable to our current agricultural economy, and that is changing the school food environment. If we want children to grow into adults who have ability and desire to maintain lifelong health, the education has to start from the beginning.
There are some seriously unsettling realities of the global industrial food system that could empower hordes of people to shift their food dollars if only they were aware. I offer myself as Exhibit A. But it took me until college to truly recognize the individual and societal consequences of my food choices — and I was lucky enough to have pretty health-literate parents!
Imagine the impact we could have on public health and food literacy if children were taught about where their food comes from from Day 1. The following is my take on the most essential components of a truly enlightened and nourishing food education that should be mandatory in elementary school.
- Growing a vegetable garden: What better way is there to teach a kid how food grows than to have them grow it themselves? Even though the scale of a school garden would be relatively small, students would grow up having some idea of the effort and resources that go into providing them sustenance, as well as an appreciation for the seasonality of different crops (“Why can’t we grow a banana tree?”), not to mention it’s a tailor-made hands-on biology curriculum. Aside from the educational part of it, the garden work would give kids more fresh air and exercise. Even better, kids are usually much more motivated to choose the carrot over the cookie if they grew if themselves.
- Visiting farms of all shapes, sizes and products: If you are reading this blog, I probably don’t need to tell you that the average American today is utterly removed (physically and emotionally) from the origin of their food. We can’t expect the public to be able to make the healthier, sustainable, humane choices concerning food if they can’t even associate that hamburger with the ranch from whence it came. We cannot all be farmers (although more of us certainly could), but we can help the next generation of eaters and voters appreciate what farmers do. Everyone needs to be educated to make the best choices for themselves individually and to take part in this critical discussion for society. Why should a field trip to a corn farm or cattle ranch be any less of a priority than a field trip to an aquarium (one memorable field trip I took in first grade)?
- Whole-food nutrition and cooking lessons: I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that eight-year-olds aren’t required to learn about the connection between nutrition and health if the same isn’t even required of most medical students — but that’s a different conversation. There are of course some major issues with food accessibility and affordability for large segments of the population; however, when one is or becomes able to access nutritious food, they need to have the motivation to choose it and the skills to prepare it. It’s hard enough to get a kid who’s grown up snacking on soda and chips to switch to celery and hummus when they know why it’s good for them. We can never realistically expect people to make that change if they have no concept of the health consequences (certainly not in this food economy). Our school system must teach children about how food affects their health, and give them the tools to prepare it in nutritious ways for the rest of their lives. It would be a no-brainer to use the produce from the students’ garden in their recipes. Nutrition also makes for another fantastically practical biology lesson, and cooking could be chemistry, or, for that matter, just plain old essential preparation for life. (Whatever happened to home economics? Why did no one ever teach me how to balance a checkbook or file my taxes?)
- Media literacy lessons: If it’s critical for kids to learn why they should be eating whole foods, it’s equally critical for them to learn how to be critical of the food media they consume. Food marketing is everywhere, and it’s overwhelmingly promoting exactly the foods that we should all be minimizing in our diets. Young children are the most vulnerable audience to marketing, while being one of the most heavily targeted audiences by the manufacturers of the most processed, highly palatable, disease-promoting foods on the market. Until and even when health advocates can reign in this type of marketing, we have to equip children with the tools to be able to recognize it and distinguish it from programming that isn’t trying to secure their brand loyalty from the moment they exit the womb.
- School food regulations that walk the walk: It would be completely counterproductive if a school implemented all of the programs I described above but still sold junk in the cafeteria and and had a Coca Cola logo plastered across the front of the vending machine. The lessons we teach students in the classroom and the field about food have to be reinforced in situations where they are actually eating and making their own food choices. And stop giving out candy and treats for every little thing. Forgive me for this radical idea, but perhaps cake should stay at birthday parties.
Caveat: I recognize that location, funding, and child age may limit the success of any of these measures or cause them to be adapted, but that’s just what the ideal scenario would look like to me.