By Danielle Nierenberg and April Galarza
Since its launch in 2010, first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move Campaign has made excellent progress empowering parents and caregivers to make healthy choices for their families; serving healthier food in schools; ensuring kids access to healthy, affordable food; and increasing their physical activity. Let's Move has advised kids to play outside, for educators to incorporate nutrition and physical activity into the school day, and for parents to get children involved in family meal planning and cooking.
But, according to some doctors and nutritionists, the campaign doesn't address one major problem: many parents don't know how to cook and they're unable to pass culinary skills -- and the importance of cooking nutritious food -- on to their children. "Instruction in basic food preparation and meal planning skills needs to be part of any long-term solution," says Alice H. Lichtenstein and Dr. David S. Ludwig, in the Journal of the American Medical Association article "Bring Back Home Economics Education." According to the study, the improved food choices students are given in schools -- kale and carrots grown in school gardens or salad bars in school cafeterias, for example, or encouraging more exercise -- will have limited effects if they are not given the skills they need to make better food choices outside of school, and later as adults.
Perhaps the most urgent aspect of the United States' obesity problem is the early age at which many American children begin to develop weight- and nutrition-related conditions. Developing unhealthy eating habits at a young age not only predisposes children to nutrition-related health disorders, but it can make it all the more difficult to maintain a healthful lifestyle later in life. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, one adolescent in six is now obese. And the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report to the president says that we if we continue on our current path, one in three children born in 2000 or later will suffer from diabetes, or other chronic obesity-related health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and asthma.
Let's Move encourages kids to get active, which along with better school lunches and incorporating nutrition into classrooms, creates a more healthy school environment. Teachers, for example, are encouraged to use fruits and vegetables to teach students their colors and shapes, weights and measurements and to instruct students about nutrition through calorie counts and daily nutritional value charts.
But learning nutrition requirements and the importance of fruits and vegetables is only the first step. As Lichtenstein and Ludwig point out, "Boys and girls should be taught the basic principles they will need to feed themselves and their families within the current food environment." They envision a curriculum that teaches students how to select healthy food at the grocery store and farmers market, demonstrates how to plan a week's worth of meals using the ingredients purchased, and how to handle, cook and prepare the ingredients to make nutritious meals for themselves and their families. Several schools systems, including Illinois, New York and Colorado, are ahead of the curve and have already started offering programs to their students.
Parents and caregivers may not have time or skills to teach their children how to prepare healthy meals because of working long hours or having multiple jobs. Hectic schedules coupled with a lack of skills or inclination leaves many adults today relying on fast food and frozen dinners to feed themselves and their families. Rushed meals or those accompanied by TV represent a lost opportunity to share time as a family. According to the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition report "Eating Planet," family meal times have been proven to increase communication and conviviality between parents and their children.
In the past, home economics curriculums were ubiquitous. Social reformers in the late 1800s pioneered educational curricula that that took a scientific approach to food, nutrition and sanitation; providing students with the skills to prepare affordable, nutritious meals with limited ingredients. For several decades, these classes taught young women (and later young men) to care for their families. Budget restraints and academic re-focusing have caused the majority of schools to cut these programs. As a result, critical skills such as cooking, grocery shopping and meal planning have fallen by the wayside.
A modern, nationwide home economics curriculum could have the same effect on food knowledge as tobacco awareness education had on reducing smoking related diseases. Students who learn to prepare meals in school could help time-strapped parents by cooking for the family. According to the Barilla Center report,
The disconnect between young people and the global food system continues to grow. Young people, whether they live in Italy, the United States, Thailand, Guatemala, or Togo, do not grow up wanting to be farmers, and consumers all over the world have forgotten basic cooking skills because of an over-reliance on processed foods.
Students who know more about food and nutrition may be our best chance for reversing the childhood obesity epidemic, and will serve as role models for their parents and communities.
Danielle Nierenberg is co-Founder of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank (www.foodtank.org); April Galarza is a graduate student at Green Mountain College.