By Robert Turner
Since it’s the holiday season, I’ll start by reminding everyone about the four important food groups; according to a well-known Elf, they are candy, candy canes, candy corn and syrup. That’s a good diet if you’re an elf, but humans, and especially growing kids, need to eat a little differently.
“Getting kids to understand and eat a healthy diet isn’t always easy,” says Megan Lyle, a nutritionist who has worked with children. “It takes time to teach and build good food habits, but it’s really important.”
According to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 40 percent of our kids can expect type 2 diabetes in their lifetimes. For children of color, it’s 50 percent. That’s half. And it’s all related to unhealthy diets of high-sugar, high-calorie and high-fat foods.
Obesity now affects one in five children in the US (CDC, 2018). “It is imperative to instill knowledge and healthy habits to avoid issues relating to this disease,” Lyle says.
Our schools can play a vital role in teaching kids about healthy food habits. The Growing Minds program offered through the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) is focused on educating teachers and parents on how to get kids excited about healthy, whole foods.
The Growing Minds website (growing-minds.org) offers teaching tools, lesson plans and fun activity ideas, a lending library, recipes, training and workshops, and publications to help parents and teachers instruct young people about healthy whole foods and where they come from. ASAP can also help with setting up school gardens, farm field trips and simple cooking classes.
Reforming the school food system is an important long-term goal for ASAP. Their Farm to School initiative focuses on increasing the amount of fresh, local fruits and vegetables served as part of the school lunch program because that leads to better long-term eating habits, while also supporting our local farmers.
The food that our kids get at school is not always the healthiest, most nutritious food, but understanding the tight budgets that school nutrition staff must work with explains a lot. The budget that provides funding for school cafeterias comes from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and is separate from the school funding for classrooms, teachers and education-related items.
In the 2018-19 school year, Buncombe County Schools received a USDA reimbursement for the free lunch program for low-income students that averaged $3.39 per day, and a reduced fee lunch reimbursement at $2.99. You would think that might be enough to provide a healthy lunch for a young student until you find out that the money must also cover cafeteria staff salaries, equipment and other operational costs. After subtracting labor and other costs, a little more than $1 is left to cover food costs, including meat or a meat alternate, grains and breads, two servings of vegetables or fruits, and milk. That’s really stretching a dollar.
Since 2012, the USDA has tried to improve the school lunch, including increases in the quantity and variety of fruits and vegetables served. The problem, of course, is that you can lead a kid to the lunch line, but what if he or she doesn’t eat? Improving eating habits can only be successful if combined with educational components such as those integrated into the Growing Minds program.
While there is plenty of evidence that proves a healthier diet improves energy levels and test scores at school, ASAP wants to change eating habits to ones that will last a lifetime.
To get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables at home, Lyle suggests turning healthy food into a fun family activity. “Balance is key when it comes to food,” she says. “Food can be simple, but really fun. Is your family having spaghetti for dinner? Create a mini salad bar and let the kids make their own side salad. Let them help put together a simple side dish or a healthy dessert. Try slicing an apple on a plate and lay the slices in a cool design. Drizzle some honey and peanut butter on there with a dash of cinnamon and maybe even a few chocolate chips. Stimulating their minds in some creative activity can help them to engage and learn about food in a positive way.”
Here’s another elven food fact: Food is not made “magically delicious” by Keebler® elves. A food scientist did that with some sugar.
Robert Turner is the director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. To learn more, visit EatYourView.com.