Healthy school food needs to come with healthy food education

Today Michelle Obama announced the new nutrition standards for public school lunches. The standards call for doubling the amount of fruits and vegetables, offering only whole-grain foods, and reducing fat and sodium. She had a great quote, saying

When we send our kids to school, we have a right to expect that they won’t be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we're trying to keep from them when they're at home. We have a right to expect that the food they get at school is the same kind of food that we want to serve at our own kitchen tables.

She is right. Parents do have a right to expect healthy food be served at their kids' schools. But I don't think that kids will automatically eat these more nutritious lunches. Kids are very used to the fatty, salty, sugary foods that are so bad for them. Thus, when healthier foods are introduced, they're less likely to eat them. It's not just because "kids are picky eaters." Yes, some kids are picky eaters. But for the most part, kids will eat foods they are familiar with. They are very familiar with pizza, and chicken nuggets, and french fries. Why? Because this is what they are eating at fast food restaurants, at school, and sometimes at home. Most kids are NOT familiar with eggplant, couscous, kale, and garbanzo beans. So they don't eat them. (Would YOU eat a strange-colored, squishy and/or crunchy food that you had never seen before?)

Fortunately, this is not an insurmountable problem. With healthy lunches should come healthy food education. Kids need to be thinking about healthy food, learning about healthy food, getting excited about healthy food. The earlier a child is introduced to healthy eating habits, the more likely she is to keep these healthy eating habits.

Schools need to bring in chefs, farmers, and nutritionists to talk to their students. They need to model healthy eating habits by eating school lunches (or their own vegetable-packed homemade lunches) right next to their students. They need to make vegetables, fruits, and other unprocessed foods seem more familiar, more appetizing. And last, they need to be teaching kids about food on a regular basis. This means teaching them how to cook it, how to grow it, how to eat it.

Middle school students design a poster
explaining why green foods are so good for you

I have been working with Seven Generations Ahead, the farm-to-school organization in Chicago that I have mentioned before, to help create a food curriculum for teachers of 5th-8th grade students. The curriculum, called Linking Plants and Food, hits on all the important aspects of healthy food education: how to cook it, how to grow it, how to eat it. It also delves into issues of food justice and access and sustainable farming. This curriculum will get students thinking about food and developing healthy eating habits. Our hope is that, while school lunches slowly become healthier, kids will slowly become healthier eaters who understand where their food comes from.

Linking Plants and Food is set to be released in the next few weeks. I am so excited to see it, and use it in my classes. For more information on Linking Plants and Food, see sevengenerationsahead.org or contact act@sevengenerationsahead.org. I will repost as soon as it is officially released!