Do You Know What Your Children Are Eating?

Staff Writer
Food education programs around the world are raising awareness to fight obesity and improve children's health

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

The evidence is overwhelming. Not only are children unaware of where their food comes from — in some cases they don’t even know what it is. The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) recently conducted a study including over 27,000 children and found that nearly 20 percent of primary school children believed that tomatoes grew under the ground, that cheese came from plants, and that pasta was an animal product.

The study’s alarming results has served as a wake up call to educators and parents around the world and as a reminder of the importance of educating children about their food.

The upcoming Food Day 2013, then, couldn’t have come at a better time. This annual, grassroots campaign event was founded by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and has a partnership with Jamie Oliver’s Food Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for better governmental food policies. Food Day 2013, currently scheduled to occur across the U.S. on October 24, will focus primarily on food education by teaching kids how to identify their food, cook for themselves, and thus, construct a healthy diet.

The Food Day campaign recognizes that, while schools “have the unique ability to educate children about food,” they are also where children feel most tempted to make unhealthy eating decisions. On the flip side of this, schools that provide healthy, balanced lunch meals often find that their students have improved school performance and behavior. The campaign suggests that teaching children how to cook and how to “eat smart” can facilitate other healthy lifestyle choices, as well.

Does this sound too good to believe? Here are some examples of how Food Day has enacted real change in schools around the world in past years:

In San Diego, public health professionals have teamed up with local businesses, farmers markets, and school administrators to organize an “Eat, Grow, San Diego” Challenge in which children and their parents could visit neighborhood farmers’ markets to learn about their food and meet the farmers.

Meanwhile, six Boston schools have opened salad bars in their cafeterias since 2012, and hundreds of schools around the world have implemented “meatless Mondays” into their weekly menu. St. Louis, Missouri public schools have started to teach their students about harvesting sweet potatoes and then facilitate cooking demonstrations featuring healthy recipes and nutritious vegetables.

The Jamie Oliver Foundation is merely one of many organizations concerned with food education. The BNF study’s distressing results coincided with the Princess Royal’s launch of Healthy Eating Week, which has called upon 3,000 participating UK schools to teach their students about healthy eating, cooking, and where food comes from. Like the U.S. Food Day, Healthy Eating Week hopes to begin re-engaging children with their food  “so that they grow up with a fuller understanding of how food reaches them and what a healthy diet consists of.”

Food education efforts are most needed in developed countries, such as the U.S. and U.K., where obesity and diabetes rates have escalated to unprecedented, dangerous levels and where advertising is a prevalent part of a child’s daily life. Researchers note that the obesity problems are most pronounced in underprivileged areas.

With this in mind, individual schools around the U.S. have recognized that they can curb their high obesity rates by including their own food education programs into their curriculums — and by starting food education programs at a younger age. Central Avenue Elementary School in Kissimmee, FL has started a healthy eating club that gives lessons on kitchen safety, teaches the importance of reading nutrition labels, and shows children how to blend vegetables into smoothies to make them taste better.

Teaching children about their food — where it comes from, how it’s grown, how to prepare it, and what its nutritional values are — can help make them more independent and aware of their environment while also decreasing susceptibility to harmful advertising and temptations. The Food Foundation has also released a comprehensive guidebook that helps school administrators and interested participants implement Food Day in their own neighborhoods.

Inspired to get involved? Try integrating food education into your child’s daily routine at home. Practice identifying food groups with your youngest children as they learn the color wheel and times tables. With older children, encourage them to cook dinner with you and learn how different foods — especially vegetables and lean proteins — can be prepared.

Implementing quick and easy modifications to a child’s daily routine can help them grow into more savvy consumers as adults. 

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