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February 24, 2010 > Better food ...better future

Better food ...better future

By Alyson Whitaker
Photos By Alyson Whitaker

Families today lead hectic lives. It's no wonder that fast food restaurants are on every corner, and the grocery store aisles are lined with ready-made, processed convenience foods. But the price of convenience is a high one - childhood obesity is at an all time high.

Children between the ages of five and eighteen spend roughly 180 days per year in school. During that time, they will eat at least 180 meals and snacks out of a bag or off of a tray. Add to that the number of snacks and meals eaten on the go, and the percentage of food consumed away from home is staggering.

Slow Food USA is a non-profit organization working to create a just and sustainable food system. The organization creates youth programs to bring the values of eating local, sustainable, and healthful foods to schools and campuses across the country. They also encourage schools to look beyond the cafeteria for their food supply. Local farms and school gardens are great resources to bring fresh and seasonal produce to school lunch lines.

Congress currently gives schools $2.68 for each lunch served, of which only about $1 goes toward the actual food. In early February, President Obama proposed adding $1 billion per year to the Child Nutrition Act, but the money will need to be divided between many critical programs. At most, schools would receive an additional 20 cents per meal, which falls short of what is needed to serve a lunch with sufficient fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. School nutrition directors and advocates agree that this would cost $1 more per lunch for the four billion lunches served each year.

"The math speaks for itself," says Slow Food USA President Josh Viertel. "Obesity and diabetes costs our nation $263 billion per year. School lunch is so under-funded that most schools can only afford to serve the cheap processed foods that fuel obesity and diabetes. Investing at least $1 billion in child nutrition programs is the smart thing to do. Otherwise, we're continuing to put our kids, our economy, our health care system, and our quality of life at risk."

Slow Food USA is behind the "Time for Lunch" campaign, encouraging legislators to vote in support of renewing the Child Nutrition Act, adding at least $1 billion a year to fund school lunch programs. For this campaign to be a success, Slow Food USA is encouraging families to send a letter or email to their local legislators voicing support. While a handwritten letter is more powerful, their web site (www.slowfoodusa.org/timeforlunch) makes it quick and easy for individuals to send emails. A goal has been set of sending 100,000 emails to Congress.

First Lady Michelle Obama has been publicly urging schools and families to improve dietary habits. Last spring, she was the driving force behind the planting of the White House Garden - the first garden planted on White House soil since Eleanor Roosevelt's "Victory Garden" planted in WWII.

Locally, Sunol Glen School is experimenting with a school garden and outdoor classroom. Grant funding through the "A Garden in Every School" campaign provided the $2,500 "seed money" to get the garden started. Students in each grade have a set time to spend in the garden each month, and the curriculum ties into what they're learning in the classroom.

Primary grades have hands-on learning with counting, colors, sorting, grouping, and shapes as they plant carrots, radishes, peas, and lettuce. They also learn about origins of food. Ask any first grader in what country a carrot originated, and there is no hesitation in answering "Afghanistan"! Upper grades put social studies lessons to practice as they learn about civilizations through history. The sixth grade is learning about the farming process, and taking the study all the way through from planting the seedlings to harvesting and selling the surplus.

Students in all grades get to touch, smell, and taste vegetables of all varieties. Late last spring, when the spinach and strawberries were abundant, students enjoyed a salad made fresh at school with ingredients right from the garden. Additional grant money and funding is needed to enhance the garden, with the goal of making it a complete outdoor classroom and larger food source for the school in the coming years.

While improving school lunch programs is a step in the right direction toward meeting the nutritional needs of our children, government and schools can't do it alone. Family and community support are essential. A single individual or group of parents can bring about change.

Beth Ann Bentley has four children attending Sunol Glen, and was instrumental in bringing the garden to the school. She had an epiphany a few years back when she read an article on reducing the risk of serious health conditions early on. High blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, and dozens of other health problems tend to run in families. The realization that a healthy diet for her children could minimize a serious health condition later in life prompted Beth Ann to make changes in her own family's diet.

Through her own research and a desire for creative, healthy, and kid-friendly recipes, Beth Ann started www.iLunchbox.com. The website is a great resource for parents and caregivers looking for information on ways to pack more punch in school lunches. Beth Ann urges families and students to replace junk food by "eating a rainbow every day" - choosing whole, natural foods from each food group with plenty of fruits and vegetables. As kids discover how tasty good food can be, they're hooked and don't miss the junk. Beth Ann assures other parents, "Sure, you might lose them for a time as teenagers to cheeseburgers and soda, but eventually they'll come back around!"

To send a letter in support of the proposed increased funding for school lunches, go to www.slowfoodusa.org/timeforlunch

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