By Jennifer Kret, UMN Public Health Nutrition Graduate Students
A nutritious diet is an important part of a healthy childhood. Likewise, reducing childhood obesity is a major public health challenge, since obese children are more likely to become obese adults, increasing their risk for diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Because children spend a significant amount of time in school, the lunchroom is an opportune setting to teach children healthy eating habits.
The National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program aim to provide low-cost or free, nutritionally balanced meals. They also influence the nutritional quality of millions of children’s diets. Unfortunately, studies over the past decade have found that children in the United States are not meeting the dietary recommendations for fruits, vegetables, milk and whole grains. Additional research has shown U.S. public school children had sufficiently nutritious diets, but a majority of these children had excessive saturated fat and sodium intakes. Given the high prevalence of obesity among children and adolescents, it is essential that schools limit low nutrient, energy dense foods and increase the availability and accessibility of healthful foods.
Farm to School (F2S) programs are a means for putting fresh, locally grown, healthy food on school cafeteria trays. By promoting healthy eating habits and introducing nutritious choices, F2S aims to reduce the risk of childhood obesity. Farm to School originated in the mid-1990s from pilot projects like the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California, led by Alice Waters. In the Edible Schoolyard, urban public school students engaged in organic gardening and a kitchen classroom, both aimed to teach children about the path from farm to fork. The idea has caught on and is growing rapidly. There are now F2S programs operating in all 50 states, reaching more than 9,500 schools, according to the National Farm to School Network.
Farm to School programs come in many different forms, depending on the needs of the school and the community. For instance, schools may acquire local food from a distributor, directly from a farmer, from farmers markets, or from a school garden. Additionally, F2S incorporates a wide range of hands-on educational activities for students including planting school gardens, cooking classes, taste testing, farm tours, and composting. Children not only benefit nutritionally from farm fresh produce, they learn about where food comes from, who produces it, and how it is produced. Notably, F2S programs can improve fruit and vegetable consumption both at school and at home, as well as increase school meal participation rates. As an additional result, local, midsize farmers benefit by gaining market opportunities.
In Minnesota, 123 school districts engaged in F2S in 2010, an increase from ten districts, in 2006. The University of Minnesota Extension Center for Family Development (UM-Extension) works with communities statewide to build capacity for F2S, facilitating partnerships and providing technical assistance to school districts and farmers, alike. The UM-Extension website has a comprehensive toolkit for school food service departments to help start, build, and sustain F2S programs. The toolkit has many resources for connecting with local farmers, parents, and teachers. In addition, tasty and healthy, kid-tested, kid-approved recipes as well as cookbooks, menu planning tools, and food safety resources are all available on the website.
We are amidst an exciting movement to change school food. A Food Revolution is gaining momentum and hopefully, coming to your children’s lunchroom soon. No more serving unrecognizable meats, fruits, or vegetables. It is time for school lunch reform!