It’s back-to-school season, and as kids return to the classroom and cafeteria, many are getting an extra serving of learning.
Nutrition education has evolved from home-ec classes in the mid 1900s to today’s farm-to-school movement and emphasis on healthier offerings, whether it’s garden-grown lettuce used in salads or from-scratch hot cooking served fresh.
And while nutrition education is far from standardized or equitable in different areas, schools across the country are experimenting with new and innovative ways to connect kids to food and nutrition during the school day.
Nutrition education now
Across the US, schools are creating gardens and greenhouses, working with local farmers and community members, teaching nutrition lessons in new and fun ways, and getting kids involved in cooking and discussing where their food comes from.
In the cafeteria, schools are adding salad bars, international fare, vegetarian and vegan options, and even food trucks to the menu.
Registered dietitian nutritionist Stefanie Dove, the coordinator of marketing and community outreach for Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia, says it’s this engagement that’s making a difference. Programs that are “putting it back into the hands of the kids” are the ones that will be most impactful, she says.
Dove teaches a portion control lesson in local high schools that never ceases to blow the kids' minds, especially when they see what an actual single serving of pasta should look like.
She’s careful not to preach about “good” or “bad” foods, though, and supports a motto that all foods can fit.
The "Eat Right Philly" program in Philadelphia also is trying to take things right to the students. It teaches about a healthy diet through interactive lessons and tastings, emphasizes school breakfast options and promotes school-wide movement breaks throughout the day. The program also has brought produce stands to 25 schools to expose families to more healthful foods.
California has worked to improve healthful offerings in the cafeteria but also provides cooking classes and food labs to tie the messages into the school work. Students also help work the schools’ vegetable gardens, the bounty of which is tested and used in the cafeteria.
“School gardens are great. I think it really helps the kids understand how hard it is to grow food, where it comes from and the benefits they can get from it,” says registered dietitian Wesley Delbridge, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“I think kids at all levels need to understand the process of growing food, what’s in their food, how to plan for their meals and once they go to college, how to keep themselves healthy and when they become parents, how to pass that information along to their kids.”
The only hiccup is the time it all gets.
A minimum of 50 hours of nutrition education per school year is believed to be necessary to have an impact on students, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Unfortunately, students only get an average of about 4 to 6 hours per year. And only 35% of school districts require some form of nutrition education at every grade level.
And as Delbridge notes, other academic subjects, testing pressures and a lack of resources often nudge nutrition education out of the classroom entirely in some areas.
But that could change.
Curriculum of the future
Nutrition education has been evolving, but it’s still struggling for a permanent place in the school day.
“I would hope that it’s viewed as more of an initiative and not a separate thing. I think nutrition education and garden-based education is truly that bridge to connect school nutrition to the school day,” Dove says.
“Nutrition is obviously very important to our bodies, to how we learn, to how we grow, to how we raise our future kids, and there just needs to be more of a focus on establishing some minimum curriculum standards,” Delbridge says.
He would like to see a once-a-month education lesson for K-8 grades and then a dedicated class in high school that would focus on real-world skills such as food and cooking. Ideally, these lessons would be taught by a registered dietitian. But if that’s not possible, he thinks dietitians could consult or help develop a curriculum that other education professionals could then implement.
And it shouldn’t be done in a vacuum.
A well-planned curriculum that’s enacted alongside improved school meals, wellness policies and other activities reinforcing the messages at school, at home and in the community can really help improve student health and academic success, while equipping children to be prepared to shop, cook and make healthy choices, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Real life skills that can make a real life difference. Now that sounds like a well-rounded education.
Kathryn Doherty has been a health editor with SmartBrief for more than 13 years. She has covered many facets of the health care industry during that time and currently focuses on physicians, health care providers, nutrition and wellness.
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