by Anupama Joshi, executive director and cofounder of the National Farm to School Network
While politicians in Washington debate implementation of school nutrition standards, the next generation's leaders are sitting in a school cafeteria deciding whether or not broccoli salad is "gross." In both cases, the stakes are high.
A 2012 study by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation predicted that obesity rates in the U.S. could exceed 44 percent by 2030, costing our country an additional $66 billion per year in medical expenses. But here's the good news: After years of focused initiatives to address childhood health and nutrition, including the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, obesity rates among children are on the decline.
And there's more good news: In the great eat-it-or-toss-it debate that plays out in lunchrooms across America, schools have a powerful tool. More than 23 million students are now more likely to say yes to broccoli salad--as well as other healthy fruits and veggies, like roasted sweet potatoes, carrot sticks, and watermelon salsa--thanks to their school's participation in a farm-to-school program. Farm-to-school activities enrich the connection kids have with fresh, healthy food and local farmers by changing food purchasing and education practices at schools and preschools. Kids gain access to healthy, local foods in their cafeteria and educational opportunities like school gardens, cooking lessons, and field trips to area farms.
Research shows that kids eat what they know and toss what they don't, and there's no better way to know your food than to get your hands dirty in a garden. Local food tastes better in many cases, too, because it has been picked ripe and delivered fresh.
Implementing farm-to-school practices does take time and effort, but new data released this month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that more than 40,000 schools across all 50 states and the District of Columbia are already engaging in farm-to-school activities, thanks to hardworking school nutrition professionals, farmers, parents, teachers, and community partners. Most schools start small: a garden patch, samples of local foods, or perhaps a visit from a farmer during National Farm to School Month in October.
Farm-to-school is a critical tool for school nutrition professionals, who are superheroes navigating a complex, underfunded, and demanding system every day. Students who are properly introduced to new foods through farm-to-school are more likely to participate in their school's meal plan and less likely to waste food, which results in a better bottom line and healthier kids.
We don't expect children to master riding a bike without a little practice and training. Nor do we expect them to succeed in calculus without first learning algebra. Why, then, are children expected to immediately like new foods without a little instruction or practice? Research says kids need to try new foods anywhere from 7 to 15 times before they acquire a taste for them. Farm-to-school activities serve as the "training wheels" that introduce children to new food options, setting them up for a lifelong ride of healthy eating.
The new school meal standards are based on sound science and recommendations from the non-partisan Institute of Medicine. They provide a clear roadmap of changes needed to reverse childhood obesity. We shouldn't be debating if or when the standards should be implemented, we should be working to ensure that all students have access to farm-to-school activities so their daily decision whether to try or toss a new food ends on the correct side of the trash can.
Anupama Joshi is executive director and cofounder of the National Farm to School Network. For more information, see www.farmtoschool.org. The National Farm to School Network is an information, advocacy, and networking hub for communities working to bring local-food sourcing and food and agriculture education into schools and preschools.
For more from Maria Rodale, visit www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com