Why do I think we should care about school food reform? Here’s what my 20 years in the natural foods industry and a decade in school food tell me.
For our health. We have been hearing a lot about the topic of health care this election cycle, and amidst the back-and-forth on the Affordable Care Act and Medicare reform, one thing always shocks me. And that’s how much time we spend talking about treating the sick and how little time we talk about preventing people from getting sick. The best preventative health initiative out there is a good diet. It reduces risk for heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. We know that healthy eating is directly correlated to personal health, and we need to invest in our future, the future of our kids and the future of our country by committing to healthy food at school.
For our planet. More than 30 million children eat school lunch every day. Over the course of a year, that adds up to 5 billion lunches served in school lunchrooms. Harnessing the purchasing power of large institutional food buyers (like schools) would have a massive impact on our environment. What if we could drive more plant-forward menus in schools to reduce the amount of fossil fuel resources we expend on livestock production? How about more organics in schools? Can we move toward farmers who use eco-friendly production practices that protect and enhance the ecosystem, water quality, soil health and biodiversity?
For social justice. Packing a child a healthy, fresh lunch feels great. You zip up that lunch box and smile thinking about the nutritional love and learning fuel you’re providing. But what about the kids who are on the free and reduced meal program? These kids step into the cafeteria at the same time as other children but get a tray of highly processed, poor quality food. Will these two kids have the same opportunity to learn? As former Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan said: "If we are going to close the achievement gap, we have to close the nutrition gap." To do that, we must ensure that all kids have access to a whole, fresh, nutrient-dense meal, whether that be on the lunch line or from a lunch box.
For our eating habits. As we age we tend to become more close-minded and stuck in our ways. One of the many beauties of children is their openness to explore and try new things. This is why it’s so important to introduce fresh food, especially fruits and veggies, to our young children when they haven’t created patterned judgments already about what they do or don’t like. For example, one day my fourth grader came home raving about the jicama she had tried on the school salad bar. I’d heard of jicama but had never tasted it or thought of incorporating it into any food our family eats, until she made a case for it. School lunch helped sculpt her palate for healthy food, and she in turn helped change our family eating habits.
For our education. What we choose to teach in school indicates to our kids what kind of knowledge adults deem important, and the same can be said for what food we choose to serve. We make sure they advance in math, reading and writing, and teach them things like cursive handwriting. But if food and nutrition education is absent from the curriculum and we compound that by serving poor quality food, what are we teaching our kids? Every child in every elementary school will eat food for the rest of their lives, and the food they eat WILL determine their ability to achieve and thrive. Improving the food in a school shows kids that food is important, and that’s something we should all care about.
Mara Fleishman is the CEO of the Chef Ann Foundation.