Childhood obesity is constantly in the news these days. With relentless exposure to sugary drinks and processed foods in media and in school cafeterias, it’s no wonder childhood obesity has become an epidemic.
“Our nation’s children seem to have few opportunities for personal contacts with their food. Instead, most of their food mysteriously arrives in sterile stores encased in flashy packages bearing a laundry list of unpronounceable ingredients, most of which have been ‘grown’ in corporate science labs,” said Kate Adamick, noted food consultant and author of the 2008 School Health Reform program in New York. Despite enthusiastic accolades from New Yorker Magazine, The New York Times and other mainstream media when the reforms took place, school administrators nationwide have been slow to adopt reform. “With contents that have been freeze-dried, pre-cooked, concentrated and vacuum-packed, even the whole foods they consume have often been genetically modified, sprayed with myriad pesticides, or derived from animals injected with a virtual pharmacy of antibiotics and hormones.”
Despite nationwide campaigns to educate people about obesity, diabetes and the important role food plays in learning and attention, many schools have been slow to adopt healthy school lunch programs or education about nutrition. Meanwhile, grassroots efforts have been serving up success.
Taking matters into their own hands, a number of grass-roots schoolyard gardens are cropping up in communities around the country to create lunchtime edibles and also serve as experiential classrooms.
In California, the Edible Schoolyard Project has partnered with Common Vision and a commercial nursery to establish school orchards in Stockton, Woodlawn, Alameda, Oakland, Santa Barbara, Petaluma, Goleta, Ventura and San Diego. The goal is to provide more than 5,000 grade schoolers with living classrooms capable of producing 10 tons of fruit for school lunches. The project will also provide more than 1500 square feet of urban canopy coverage in the coming years. Common Vision volunteers armed with bare-root fruit trees visit public schools and community centers in its biofuel bus throughout the State of California. Its Fruit Tree Tour program works alongside elementary, junior and high school students, teachers, and family members to transform barren schoolyards and vacant lots into vibrant orchards.
“At Schoolyard Farms, we’re working to transform underused schoolyard space to feed cafeterias and educate students about healthy food systems,” said Courtney Leeds, Director and Board Member of Schoolyard Farms. After becoming certified in Permaculture Design, she landed a formal urban farm apprenticeship at Zenger Farm in Portland, Oregon. There she learned techniques of organic farming, nonprofit farm operations and principles of experiential garden education. She has since applied this training toward effective educational programs via Schoolyard Farms.
“For the past two years, we have partnered with Candy Lane Elementary in Milwaukie, Oregon to cultivate our three-quarter acre pilot farm. We teach weekly garden-based classes for over 250 students and run a CSA program that has sold more than 2,000 pounds of produce to community members, farmers markets, and area Head Start programs,” said Leeds.
Over the last decade, Adamick has created numerous successful programs throughout New England to educate school children about the food they consume. By involved local farms and community gardens, these programs incorporate more locally grown fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes into school lunches. Adamick’s programs also provide an opportunity for children to take field trips to area farms and community gardens to learn about the food they eat.
Schoolyard Gardens Cropping Up in Media
Healthy lunch programs have regained steam with high-profile media exposure in recent history. Naked Chef, Jamie Oliver, who is best known for his transformational TV series, Food Revolution, popularized the movement toward healthy school food and nutrition education. Founder of the Jamie Oliver Foundation’s Kitchen Garden Project in the U.K., he has created a plethora of resources aimed at helping elementary schools bring food awareness into their classrooms with engaging activities.
In November last year, the Wall Street Journal recognized Alice Waters, founder of the Edible Schoolyard Project, as Humanitarian Innovator of the Year. A statement on her website declares, “This endorsement is truly a testament to the tens of thousands of programs on the ground that demonstrate the effectiveness of edible education every day.”
Scientific studies indicate that nutrition plays a major role in healthy learning. Without engaging children with experiential education that is both healthy and fun, it is impossible to compete with the overwhelming marketing of Happy Meals and sugary treats. Schoolyard gardens are great teaching tools and have potential to improve both physical health and capacity for learning.
Oliver emphasizes the urgency of parents and educators taking control of student diets, not waiting for government to take action to improve childhood nutrition. He said, “If we can get gardens, school food and the curriculum working together, we’ve got a realy potent, beautiful, inspirational catalyst for change.”
Schoolyard Gardens by Snowden Bishop. Image courtesy of Creative Commons.