The Carrot Connection: Childhood Nutrition and School Gardens

If you’re under 30 and went through the US public school system, you would not be at fault for believing that sex and illegal drugs, out of all earthly hazards, are the most dire threats to public health and safety.

You remember those 12 years of rigorous training and its slogans: “just say no”, “abstinence before marriage”, etc. I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid left thinking that teenager- and adulthood was some sort of dangerous maze in which shady characters would be trying to bed me or jab me with needles full of corruption at every turn. I assumed that as long as I avoided these two evils, a long and healthy life was pretty much assured. 

Well, turns out I was wrong, and so was the war on drugs. The number one killer of adults in America is heart disease. Close runners-up are diabetes and other obesity-related diseases. Why is it then that the only place I learned about nutrition in school was from the USDA food pyramid poster slapped up in the corner of the lunch room?

A couple decades later, not much has changed. Even though the USDA invested $2 to change the food pyramid to a plate, its healthier-eating message is hardly making it to the younger generation. If the substance-abuse and  anti-sex programs are still as fear-based as I remember them, kids today are probably  more concerned about STDs and gateway drugs than diabetes and thyroid conditions. Meanwhile, subsidies to agribusiness are higher than ever, and physical education is being cut from school budgets.

Is there hope? Heck yes there is. Even though the Department of Education and the USDA haven’t made it a priority, parents and community leaders are stepping up to change the way kids are fed and taught about nutrition in public schools. Or at least, they are in Eugene. Since last fall, I’ve been volunteering with the School Garden Project of Lane County, which facilitates hands-on education in school gardens. Recently, I attended a discussion on childhood nutrition hosted by two other great organizations, Lane Coalition for Healthy Active Youth and Eugene Coalition for Better School Food (if there’s anything we do well around here, it’s coalition-forming).

The discussion was held in a small elementary school cafeteria in town. Lured by the promise of refreshments, I arrived early and was not disappointed. Tables overflowing with raw nuts, fresh berries, organic granola, locally produced hummus, bread, salsa and tortilla chips lined one wall. Although it was a warm spring evening, the room slowly filled with people, mostly parents, and the sounds of snacking blended with their chatter, in which intentions were voiced in measured tones. They had notepads on their knees and questions prepared.

A stage was set up near the “Pizza Window” at the front of the cafeteria, and the introducer took the stage at exactly the scheduled time and politely asked the audience to quiet down. They did. Suddenly, it hit me that this was no disorganized hippie rally. These people do not just have a cause, they have a mission. This event was not another outlet for disgruntled souls to complain about corporate power or government malfeasance. It was about gathering the facts.

They’d picked just the man to deliver them, too. The highlighting speaker was Dr. Daniel Marks, a pediatric endocrinologist and director of the Oregon Child Health Research Center at Oregon Health & Sciences University. He’s one of those guys who can take a lot of complicated information and make it easy to understand, without losing sight of the bigger picture.

The big picture, in this case, is literal. Thirty percent of kids today are overweight or obese. There are a number of factors contributing to this problem, starting with genetics, exacerbated by family, and made all the more complex by advertising. For most of our history as a species, 2.5 million years or so, we lived as hunter-gatherers and food was scarce. Our bodies evolved to store the calories from animal fat and sugars, which were eaten rarely, by readily creating its own fat stores to be used up in the lean times. To this day, neurotransmitters reward us with good feelings when we eat anything sweet or fatty. Evolution hasn’t had the opportunity to remove that incentive. Agriculture was only invented 10,000 years ago, and since then, food has become more abundant for most societies. As Dr. Marks put it, our bodies are very good at dealing with food scarcity, but very bad at dealing with its opposite. In a time of plenty, our bodies still won’t allow a single calorie to ever go to waste.

Not only do we have genetics making us fat, there’s the family factor as well. It’s obvious that parents teach their kids how to eat once they’re old enough to learn, but one of the most interesting parts of Dr. Mark’s lecture was about a study done on breastfeeding mothers. Before each feeding, one group of mothers drank a glass of carrot juice. The other group just drank water. Once the babies of the carrot-juice group grew old enough to eat solid food, they preferred the food with carrot puree mixed in. The babies who didn’t receive carrot juice through their mothers’ milk didn’t have a preference for carrots. It’s easy to see the potential for teaching good dietary habits – or bad ones – that mothers posses even before babies are conscious of what food is.

Beyond family, the community in which a child is raised plays a big role. All cultures place special significance on food, but in ours, eating is almost a religion. So is losing weight – but not in the sense of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Most of the time, dieting is framed as a way to look better while enjoying the same eating habits that caused the weight gain.

That brings me to advertising. The companies making processed food know very well that we’re genetically programmed to get off on sugary and fatty foods. They seek to hook kids young and succeed at it. Kids see an average of three ads a day for fast food alone. If they happen to go in a grocery store, they’ll find friendly cartoon characters beckoning from boxes of sugar-loaded cereal. Candy bars are placed conveniently at kid-height. School programs funded by Pizza Hut reward kids for reading with a free 750-calorie “personal” pizza. Product placement in TV and movies makes drinking a Coke as second-nature as smoking a cigarette did in the entertainment of the 50’s.

Again, all of this would be relatively harmless if getting fat wasn’t so easy. According to Dr. Marks, kids consuming just 50 calories a day beyond what they need for normal growth are on the path to being overweight in just a few years. Fifty calories – that’s one Oreo. 100 calories extra calories a day – a DoubleStuf Oreo – will lead to obesity. It’s no wonder 30% of kids today are overweight or obese.

Because school is where kids spend most of their time, people concerned about this epidemic have been putting their energy there to try to turn things around. But despite many years of programs that build gardens in schools, bring kids to farms, and deliver farm produce to schools, school lunch menus haven’t change a whole lot. On the other hand, community awareness of healthy vs unhealthy food, where food comes from, and what it should actually taste like has taken off. Putting pressure on the decision-makers to improve the quality of school food has definitely gone from a fringe cause to an organized movement.

This spring, I’ve been volunteering with School Garden Project of Lane County. Through this program, kids get to spend an hour out of the classroom twice a month, doing hands-on activities in the garden at their school. In this hour, they all become little hunter-gatherers and dirt excavators. Give them the opportunity to use a shovel and sample some lettuce, kale, broccoli, nasturtium flowers or swiss chard out of the garden, and they’re happy as chickens on a compost pile. Their preconceptions of hating vegetables disappear in the excitement of eating something right out of the garden. I’ve watched many a kid stick a broccoli floret in his mouth, even after I’ve warned him that the plant’s a little old and covered with aphids, and make a disgusted face while assuring me that it’s “delicious”.

So why don’t the school cafeterias reflect the fact that kids do like to eat fresh fruits and veggies and are capable of making good choices when it comes to nutrition? Cafeterias today are pretty similar to those I remember as a kid – unfriendly, uncomfortable, and a better space for DARE assemblies than for eating. In Eugene’s 4J school district, they all now have salad bars, but the salad must be purchased as part of a meal and doesn’t contain enough substance to stand alone. Even if they do opt for the salad bar, many kids never get around to eating it all. Lunch periods are short, lunch lines are long, and recess often comes directly afterward. When you’re a kid, all you want to do is get out to that playground, and if lunchtime is cutting into the time you can spend kicking other kids off the top of the jungle gym, you’re not going to bother with more than a few bites.

To encourage kids to eat, maybe school cafeterias could take a few hints from their competitors at the fast food chains. The interior of a fast food joint is always yellow or orange –colors that stimulate hunger. They are well lit, with lots of windows. Ads on every wall persuade customers to consume even more with drool-worthy pictures and targeted messages. The tables and chairs are arranged in such a way to make customers feel more like guests and less like inmates.

 

Of course, there are bigger-picture questions in this debate. In the panel discussion following Dr. Marks’ talk, we heard from the Assistant Director of Nutrition Services for the school district. Actually, as her title was written, the term “Nutrition Services” came with a slash after it, and the word “Sodexco”. When I got home, I looked that word up. Turns out that instead of having its own Nutrition Services department, the school district contracts it out to a food supplier – Sodexo. Here’s a gem from their/the school district’s website: “Most think of them as just kids. We see them as valued customers… That’s the Sodexo difference.” After the panel discussion, parents brought up lots of concerns, but nobody addressed the glaring problem: In every other room of the school, kids are students. In the cafeteria, they’re customers – consumers, in marketing-speak. Should publicly funded schools even be allowed to have such a relationship with a private business? How can local farms ever have a chance at supplying the school district if “nutrition services” employees all work for the current supplier? Does Sodexo offer choices like organic foods? I doubt it.

Then there’s the matter of school budgets. Eugene’s schools, like most others in this country, are probably in their biggest budget crisis ever. The amount they have budgeted for each kid’s lunch is around $1. Because quality food is not the highest priority in the budget, this amount will probably go down soon. Maybe the bigger issue that needs to be addressed here is that of school funding.

In response to public meetings like the one I attended, school lunches are evolving, slowly. The Sodexo representative present at the panel discussion said she was phasing out chocolate milk (twice the calories as regular milk) and “Cookie Fridays”. Still, she was on a stage next to the Pizza Window, and claimed that menu items like these are necessary to get kids to eat in the first place.

More activity is taking place on the parents’ side: More and more are sending their kids to school with sack lunches. They’re not just forming coalitions, they’re volunteering their time to School Garden Project and Farm to School programs and taking nutrition education into their own hands. Thanks to this effort, kids are finally learning what real food is and why they should seek it out. I had a reminder of that today at an elementary school, when one of the girls in the garden session turned to me and asked, “Why do you wear glasses?” I told her it was so I could see. She frowned at me. “You need to eat more carrots.”

I’ll bring up it up with my mother.

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