Published: February 24, 2006
New York Times Op Ed
IT’S shocking that because of the rise in Type 2 diabetes experts say that the children we’re raising now will probably die younger than their parents the result of a disease that is largely preventable by diet and exercise. But in public schools these days, children all too often are neither learning to eat well nor to exercise.
Fifty years ago, we had a preview of today’s obesity crisis: a presidential council told us that America’s children weren’t fit and we did something about it, at great expense. We built gymnasiums and tracks and playgrounds. We hired and trained teachers. We made physical education part of the curriculum from kindergarten through high school. Students were graded on their performance.
Universal physical education is a start, and it’s a shame that schools have been cutting back on recess and gym. But in a country where nine million children over 6 are obese we need the diet part of the equation, too. It’s time for students to start getting credit for eating a good lunch.
I know from experience that teaching children about food changes their lives. I helped establish a gardening and cooking project in the public schools here in Berkeley called the Edible Schoolyard, and I’ve come to believe that lunch should be at the center of every school’s curriculum.
Schools should not just serve food; they should teach it in an interactive, hands-on way, as an academic subject. Children’s eating habits stay with them for the rest of their lives. The best way to defeat the obesity epidemic is to teach children about food and thereby prevent them from ever becoming obese.
The trouble is that the shared family meal is now a rare experience for most youngsters, with only a third of married couples with children reporting regularly having dinner as a family. We have abdicated our responsibility to these children, placing their well-being in the hands of the fast-food industry, whose products hamburgers, chicken nuggets, French fries dominate school lunch programs.
Not only are our children eating this unhealthy food, they’re digesting the values that go with it: the idea that food has to be fast, cheap and easy; that abundance is permanent and effortless; that it doesn’t matter where food actually comes from. These values are changing us. As a nation, we need to take back responsibility for the health of not just our children, but also our culture.
Our program began at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School 10 years ago, with a kitchen classroom and a garden full of fruits, vegetables and herbs. A cafeteria where students, faculty and staff members will eat together every day is under construction, and the Edible Schoolyard has become a model for a district-wide school lunch initiative.
At King School today, 1,000 children are involved in growing, preparing and sharing fresh food. These food-related activities are woven into the entire curriculum. Math classes measure garden beds. Science classes study drainage and soil erosion. History classes learn about pre-Columbian civilizations while grinding corn.
We’re not forcing them to eat their vegetables; we’re teaching them about the botany and history of those vegetables. We’re not scaring them with the health consequences of their eating habits; we’re engaging them in interactive education that brings them into a new relationship with food. Nothing less will change their behavior.
We can try to improve diets all we want by making school lunches more nutritious and by getting vending machines out of the hallways, but that gets us only partway there. For example, New York City has just banned whole milk in its public schools. It’s a courageous first step, but how can we be sure students will drink healthier milk just because it’s offered to them, let alone understand what lifelong nourishment is all about?
Indeed, it’s too often the fresh fruit and salad that gets tossed in the garbage at school cafeterias. Even if they weren’t already addicted to salt and sugar, children tend to be wary of unfamiliar foods and besides, they can always bring packaged junk in for lunch or buy fast food after school. Healthful food that’s offered in a “take it or leave it” way is often, well, left.
But when a healthy lunch is a part of a class that all children have to take, for credit and when they can follow food from the garden to the kitchen to the table, doing much of the work themselves something amazing happens. The students want to taste everything. They get lured in by foods that are beautiful, that taste and smell good, that appeal to their senses. When children grow and prepare good, healthy food themselves, they want to eat it, and, what’s more, they like this way of learning.
We need a revolution, a delicious revolution, that will induce children in a pleasurable way to think critically about what they eat. The study of food, and school lunch, should become part of the core curriculum for all students from kindergarten through high school. Such a move will take significant investment and the kind of resolve that this country showed a half-century ago. It will be costly, but if we don’t pay now, the health care bill later will be astronomical.