Healthy Eating Requires Health Education
By TIMI GUSTAFSON, R.D.
Kirkland Reporter Healthy Living contributor
March 18, 2009 · 4:35 PM
In a recent issue of the New York Times, Alice Waters, the founder of the famous restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., co-wrote an article on the importance of teaching and practicing healthy eating habits in our schools. She also urged the government to commit more funds for the improvement of the National School Lunch Program that was established in 1946. From its inception, the program was meant to serve as a safety net for children whose parents were too poor to buy food for them to take to school. Unfortunately, the program has been notoriously underfunded throughout its existence, and only a small portion of its meager means go actually towards food supplies. Most is absorbed by administrative costs, services and even for heating bills of school cafeterias.
Waters deserves to be heard. She does not only talk the talk, she walks the walk too – and admirably so. Her brainchild, “The Edible School Yard,” is a program where young children can learn about healthy nutrition by planting, growing, cooking and eating fresh fruits and vegetables as part of their curriculum. When she started out in 1994, she had little more than her enthusiasm, the eager collaboration of a middle school principal and the support of an ever growing circle of like-minded teachers, parents and volunteers. Fifteen years later, “The Edible School Yard” has become a great example for how health education programs can be integrated in our public school system, especially when they are presented in interesting and imaginative ways. All those politicians and bureaucrats who have been talking for years about the need to reform The National School Lunch Program should take notes from Waters and her friends.
The advantages of including health education in schools as early as possible are obvious. However, before we even begin to teach our kids healthy eating habits, many schools will have to provide a more health-promoting environment. Too many cafeterias offer processed and pre-packaged foods, which are commonly high in fat and calories but have little nutritional value, as their standard fare. By contrast, organically grown, farm-fresh fruits and vegetables are often hard to come by, despite of many promises and sometimes earnest efforts by school district officials, teachers and parents to push for change. Few schools have in-house kitchens, making it hard, if not impossible, to serve meals made from scratch. That is why Alice Waters emphasizes the importance of investing in industrial-size kitchens at all schools. Without the ability to prepare fresh food on campus, school cafeterias will remain limited to fast-food-style and other ready-to-eat meals, no matter how much money they receive from the government.
In addition to improving the nutritional quality of the food we serve our children at school, we have to make comprehensive health education part of the standard curriculum at all public schools. When children learn about the health benefits of good nutrition early on, they are much more likely to make healthier lifestyle choices beyond their formative years – hopefully for life. There is no better way to implement preventive health care than by teaching these values at a young age. The earlier the exposure, the longer lasting the effects will be.
For some, these ideas may be too idealistic, too utopian, especially in times of dwindling budgets all around. If that is so, I think we need to question our priorities. The money we spend on the health of our children is the most important investment we can make in the future. In politics, there is so much talk about issues of national security and what not. Here’s one that really deserves our attention. We cannot tolerate any longer the widespread ignorance about the basics of good health that plagues our society. Eventually, we must achieve “universal health literacy” – and for this, we had better start teaching our kids.
Timi Gustafson is the author of “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.” Her book is available in bookstores, online at www.thehealthydiner.com or on Amazon.com – To receive her free monthly newsletter by e-mail, you may send a request to email@example.comContact Kirkland Reporter Healthy Living contributor Timi Gustafson, R.D. at firstname.lastname@example.org.