Setting the stage
Are we modeling a consistent message of health, wellbeing and sound nutrition to kids in our school systems? Some schools are exemplary, no doubt whereas there are others who are either still in the dark or are feeling helpless. Candy or chocolate being offered as a reward in the classrooms alongside chips, soda pops/ colas being served at lunch time or in vending machines; celebrating an achievement with ice cream or a gift voucher for fast food; pizza parties for end of year celebrations; and fundraising events with donuts and cookies. A consistent message of health, wellbeing and sound nutrition? I don’t think so.
Facts and figures
Our children spend on an average, over 1000 hours in school in any given academic school year. Over the lifetime of a child he/ she spends an average of about 12,000 hours away from home, from preschool through 12th grade, and then some more as the child moves through college. Students in classrooms are a captive audience, receiving over 1000 instructional hours per year. Are we leveraging this time and their presence, effectively? Probably not.
Today, there is a 400% increase in the rate of allergies, 300% increase in the rate of asthma, a 400% increase in the rate of ADHD and a 1500% increase in the rate of autism. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicts that 50% of today’s children will become obese by the year 2030. Even those children, who may look thin on the outside, may actually be carrying fat on the inside. Diseases often masquerade as learning disabilities, behavioral disorders and chronic ailments like diabetes and heart disease. There are still more morbid statistics out there, as you can very well imagine.
That was then
The current state of affairs has its roots in the industrial revolution, about 200 years ago when agrarian life was abandoned for the lure of wealth in the cities. As a consequence, slums expanded and so also malnutrition, causing diseases which disproportionately affected children because of their greater developmental nutritional needs. Charitable groups and governments of industrialized nations realized that as education became a universal norm, the school was the common denominator for all kids. So they instituted school nutrition programs throughout the schools.
During World War II, there was a lack of healthy recruits due to diseases of malnourishment. That’s where the National School lunch Program was born to grow healthy kids for the American army. This welfare strategy worked really well as government surplus commodities were provided to the schools, to be included in their lunch programs, thereby turning the tide on malnutrition.
However, in the 1970’s the U.S. government’s focus shifted to agricultural exports, thereby limiting the subsidies and as a result the school lunch programs were negatively impacted. Earlier funding for the lunch program was included in the general school budget, along with books, salaries, transportation, etc., but now food programs had to be compromised in order to break even.
This is now
The nation’s food and agricultural interests for control over school menus have exploited these welfare programs. The rationale became that kids like pizza, pasta, bread and it’s cheap, so let’s feed them that. Federal government covers just $1.06 per meal for a fully subsidized school lunch. Over 3000 such substandard meals are eaten by a child on an average from K -12, in a given school year. So now kids, from both the poor and the wealthy families suffer from diseases caused by malnourishment.
Today, just 10 companies control 90% of our food supply. From a farming nation we are today a consuming nation and grow less than 2% of our food. In fact U.S. has more prisoners than farmers, 2.3 million and 1.9 million, respectively. Just compare the 31 million kids that are fed each year in schools throughout the U.S. at a mere $11.5 billion per year to the diet related illnesses where $260 billion per year is being spent, not to mention wars that cost us $3 billion a week. Food companies in America are spending $17-20 billion per year marketing junk food to children. What travesty!
This as you can tell is not just a social justice issue but is also a political issue.
I shudder to think - and so would you - that we are growing “sick adults” who will be our leaders and decision makers. It appears morbid today, but I see hope (and hope you do too).
Do you recall that we can leverage the presence of our students as a captive audience for over 1000 instructional hours per year, and for about 12 years in a row? It’s all in our hands.
Ideas to consider and explore
- Wellness as a core value of education
- Integrate weekly lesson plans on important topics related to health, nutrition and sustainability, along with home assignments/ experiments so they can carry the positive learning experience at home as well and share with family members. Some examples of topics could be natural vs. artificial sugars, balanced meals, mindful breathing, how physical activity impacts focus, and so on.
- Growing a garden at school and learning the joys of sowing, tending, harvesting and tasting. If space is limited, growing potted plants and herbs in every classroom are alternate options. Imagine sharing the harvest at lunchtime - yum!
- Learning to cook or cooking demonstrations done periodically by the lunch staff/ parents/ other volunteers in school cafeterias at lunch hour. Perhaps having a juicing or smoothie day might be fun for kids.
- The school principal, teachers and parents dining with the children at lunch once a week and talking about the food, getting feedback and taking stock of what is working and what’s not.
- Demonstrating wellness in thought, word and deed
- School staff can send a profound message to the young when they choose to keep a bottle of water and an apple on their table as opposed to keeping an artificially sweetened beverage and a bag of Doritos.
- When demonstrating scientific concepts such as specific gravity of liquids, comparing fresh juice vs. water sends a positive message as opposed to say, Coke vs. water or Gatorade vs. water. Likewise, children could be encouraged to showcase experiments that convey a message related to sustainability, such as comparing the effects of using acidic water or depleted soil to grow a plant versus mineral rich water and quality soil, and such.
- If a reward is absolutely necessary, then considering a non-food based reward such as words of acknowledgment or a printed certificate mentioning the reason for the reward or maybe every once in a while a healthy snack or treat might be better options than offering candy and chocolates laden with refined sugar, artificial colors and hydrogenated oils.
- Celebrating children’s birthdays with the class using healthier forms of food, devoid of refined sugars such as fruit skewers or treats made with wholesome, recognizable ingredients.
- Just as putting up a sign saying, “This is a drugs, smoking and bully free zone”, consider perhaps also adding a sign saying, “This is a refined sugar, chemicals, pesticides, preservatives and additives free zone”.
- Make unlimited free water available as opposed to installing vending machines spitting out cheap, low quality drinks and snacks.
- Teacher wellness programs
- An individualized approach to teacher wellness is needed because not only are they each unique as human beings (based on age, gender, health condition, financial situation, etc.) but also their environment may be drastically different. For instance a teacher in San Francisco may have a varied set of needs and challenges when compared with his/ her counterpart in Oklahoma City, where one may have farmers market to visit on the weekends, the other may be living in a food desert! Programs need to be culturally relevant as also practical.
- A series of private or group coaching and wellness classes could offer ways to empower them with the requisite knowledge, ideas and tools to enhance their own health, and from this place of wellbeing, they can support the students under their care and tutelage. Teacher wellness translates to student wellness. It’s contagious!
- Coming together as one
- USDA has mandated that every school district have a wellness policy. The school districts must go above and beyond the boilerplate policy guidelines to create very specific criteria for their food programs if they are to make a positive change.
- Wellness committees, signing off on these regulations must represent the larger community and hence be made up of parents, students, teachers, school food service people, school board members, administrative staff and community members.
- Individuals who are advocating for better food and other wellness programs in schools can also form nutritional advisory committees (similar to wellness committees) and serve as consultants, doing school food environment audits; interviewing lunch staff to determine their needs for say, cooking from scratch or new equipment; reviewing how food is used in the curriculum; offering viable solutions and plans; and so on.
- There is always a way to find funding for superior quality foods and ingredients. With standardized specifications such as hormone and antibiotic free meats or pesticide free carrots, the suppliers can supply large quantities to all school districts. They can do the same for compostable or reusable plates and utensils. As districts band together they create great economies of scale and hence save money. Federal grants are also available for kitchen equipment. The PTO and committee members could organize creative ways of raising funds. Some members could possibly offer their services, say a chef selling food at a farmers’ market or a certain number of car sales at a dealership, and divert a portion of the funds thus raised to support their local school food initiatives.
It takes a village to raise a child. Or better said, it takes a healthy village to raise a healthy child. We must be a team. Parents, school staff, school district members, policy makers, corporations, media, farmers, restaurateurs, and our society as a whole must constitute the team. We need to accept that we are collectively and equally responsible for the current state of affairs. If we each made conscientious choices, we could reverse the morbid statistics and ensure that our young ones grow up to be happier, healthier and thriving adults. It’s about time we created a new normal in our children’s lives, many of who think that junk food is real food. We must be seamlessly integrated if we wish to create sustainable changes in the health and wellbeing of our young by inspiring them to not only make wiser choices but also contribute towards making the available choices, wise.
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A personal invitation from Nilanjana Krishnan:
If you are an educator, a parent or someone who is a passionate children’s advocate, I invite you to connect with me. I am actively seeking to support committed individuals who wish to be the change they want to see in this world, so that together we can make a difference in the lives of our young. For more information about me, visit www.wellnesswithnilanjana.com. You may get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I offer a no obligation, complimentary 50- minute consultation where we explore your health, wellness and other important life goals and I explain strategies for how I may be able to best support you in achieving them. Remember, your optimum wellbeing is closely interlinked with the wellbeing of the young ones in your life. They are looking up to you as their role model. Are you ready to be the change first? Let me know at email@example.com.
I have another free gift for you - the first 12 chapters of my book, “I Know the Way – 81 fun ways to live the Tao”. Visit my website at www.wellnesswithnilanjana.com to claim your gift.
- Chaplain, Sarah. Create Change in School Food. Courtesy of Integrative Nutrition.
- Cooper, Ann. Change the Way we Feed our children. Courtesy of Integrative Nutrition.
- Farming 1970’s to Today. http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe70s/money_02.html. August 23, 2015.
- Grant, Deborah Lewison. The Value of Teacher Wellness. Courtesy of Integrative Nutrition.
- Industrial Revolution. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_Revolution#Agriculture. August 23, 2015.
- Johnson, Nathaniel (28 March 2014). America’s worst food deserts – Map-lover’s edition. http://grist.org/food/americas-worst-food-deserts-map-lovers-edition/. August 24, 2015.
- Kalafa, Amy. Sustainable School Food Systems. Courtesy of Integrative Nutrition.
- School meal programs in the United States. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_meal_programs_in_the_United_States. August 23, 2015.