PILLAR 3: GREEN & HEALTHY SPACE
Gardening, cooking, serving and eating, composting—these are truly basic things, but the lessons they could teach are drowned out by the clamor of the media and the insidious temptations of consumerism. Kids today are bombarded with a pop culture which teaches redemption through buying things. School gardens, on the other hand, turn pop culture upside–down. They teach redemption through a deep appreciation for the real, the authentic, and the lasting—for the things money can’t buy—the very things that matter most of all if we are going to lead sane, healthy, and sustainable lives. Kids who learn environmental and nutritional lessons through school gardening—and school cooking and eating—learn how to lead ethical lives.
—Alice Waters 70
Rochelle Davis is the director of the Healthy Schools Campaign, an organization that works in Illinois. When she started this dynamic group several years ago, she consulted with various parents, teachers and administrators across the state. As it turned out, their greatest environmental concerns revolved around school lunch. So Davis and her staff decided to launch a campaign to address the issue of pesticides used on fruits and vegetables served to children in the schools. “But we quickly found out”quips Davis, “that there weren’t enough fruits and vegetables in the school lunches to have pesticides on them.”71
|There is a clear correlation between the growth of junk and fast foods in schools and the wild increase in childhood obesity|
As her organization reconsidered its approach, they began to focus on issues of basic nutrition, obesity, access to food, and fighting predatory marketing to children by soft drink corporations. Davis’encounter with an inadequate and problem–ridden lunch program is a common theme throughout the country. As the Berkeley–based Center for EcoLiteracy’s Rethinking School Lunch program explains:
Of the 54 million children that attend public school in the United States, nearly half —26 million —obtain breakfast, lunch and/or after school snacks though the National School Lunch Program. The alarming increase of diet related disease among school age children is being connected, at least in part, to the quality of meals eaten at school.72
EDUCATION IN A FAST FOOD NATION
Budgetary constraints frequently compel school districts and decision–makers (along with parents) to choose unhealthy, low–cost options for feeding children. Indeed, much of our country’s school lunch program consists of the unwanted surplus of industrial agriculture. Purchased by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and then turned over to schools, this surplus is often high in saturated fat and low in nutritional value. For instance, in 2002 USDA spent $338 million on surplus cheese and beef for school meals, and only $159 million on fruits and vegetables—most of which were canned, frozen, and often unappealing to children.73
On top of this, many schools have turned the cafeteria into a revenue stream at the expense of children’s health. As Gary Ruskin, of the organization Commercial Alert explains: “In thousands of schools across the country, corporations and school administrators have joined together to market high–calorie, caffeinated, high–sugar candy and soda pop, other junk food and fast food to impressionable children.” 74
As a result, in most of the country, The New York Times reports that
A school lunch often looks like an exercise in fat loading, with a super–size soft drink from a vending machine, followed by a candy bar from another machine. The meal is more in keeping with one from a fast–food outlet than what the Department of Agriculture says is a nutritious meal.75
According to the Center for Disease Control figures, the overwhelming majority of K–12 schools (93.6%, 83.5% and 58.1% of high, middle and elementary schools) allow soft drinks and other high–added–sugar drinks to be sold in vending machines, cafeterias or other on–campus sites. Overall, from 1977 to 1996, soda consumption by 12–19 year olds increased by 75% for boys and 40% for girls. Chocolate candy sales are not that far behind. Meanwhile, more than 20 percent of public schools sell high–fat fast food such as Pizza Hut and McDonald’s. 76
These companies have also harnessed the schools as an advertising vehicle to reach a prime target audience. Many schools allow the fast food and junk food corporations to place their ads on school grounds or even in the school buildings. Some of these companies also reach 12,000 schools and 8 million children via Channel One, an in–school marketing program that provides TV programming in exchange for running ads for Hostess Twinkies, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, M&M’s and Snickers bars, among others to a captive audience of kids.77
The money schools receive from these vending and advertising concessions fund everything from books to music to sports programs. This, combined with severe funding shortages for education, makes fast and junk food deals particularly enticing for school districts, and particularly difficult to dislodge once they’re in place.78
Once again, one cannot absolutely prove that the radical increase in junk food sales, advertising in schools and the growing prevalence of fast food in school lunches is a major cause of growing health problems in American children. However there is a clear correlation between the growth of junk and fast foods in schools and the wild increase in childhood obesity—a serious disease—over a similar time period. For instance, during roughly the same time that soda and candy consumption radically escalated (1977–1996), the childhood obesity rate grew several-hundred-fold.79
RETHINKING SCHOOL LUNCH
Addressing this epidemic by severely limiting children’s exposure to soft drinks, junk food and fast food would be an important proactive, precautionary step toward solving the problem. In many places, this is already happening. People are organizing in various ways across the country to reverse the situation.
Commercial Alert, for instance, has set an education campaign goal “to rid the nation’s schools of corporate marketers, junk food peddlers and market researchers, and to banish their influence upon textbooks and curricula as well.”And while this may be quite ambitious, it has dared to imagine healthy, corporate–free schools. The organization also cites a series of victories, including various bans of soda, candy and junk food in California, Texas, Maine, Chicago and New York City among others.80
400 school districts in 22 states now operate farm to school programs
On a national level Senator Ted Kennedy has introduced the “Prevention of Childhood Obesity Act,”which would require schools that receive federal funds to establish polices to “ban vending machines that sell foods of poor or minimal nutritional value,”such as soda and candy. It would provide grants preferentially to schools that prohibit the advertising or marketing of junk food, that provide food options low in fat, calories and added sugars, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, or that encourage the consumption of water in school by maintaining a minimum number of water fountains.81
Meanwhile, a related, but entirely different kind of movement has sprung up across the country. Known as “Farm to School,”these programs, according to the Los Angeles–based Center for Food and Justice, “connect schools with local farms with the objectives of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias, improving student nutrition, providing health and nutrition education opportunities that will last a lifetime, and supporting local small farmers.”Overall as many as 400 school districts in 22 states are operating farm to school programs.82 These initiatives not only promote children’s health, but also support local, small–scale, sustainable, organic agriculture instead of the big agribusiness that dominates school lunch programs, increasingly relies on the production of genetically modified crops, and walks hand in hand with the fast food industry.
Farm to School programs have proven that children will eat healthy, fresh and flavorful products if they are served in an appealing way, and reinforced through experiences in and out of the classroom that support healthy eating behavior. In 2004, advocacy efforts spearheaded by the Community Food Security Coalition led to the passage of the “National Farm to Cafeteria Legislation”which will create federal funding for schools wanting to initiate a farm to school program.83
In another, related development, in 2004 the Center for EcoLiteracy issued a guide for “Rethinking School Lunch.”This helpful roadmap offers suggestions and resources for schools and districts across the country on topics ranging from developing and implementing a food policy; to building a curriculum based on nutrition and local food systems; to discussions of professional development, procurement, waste management, and financial planning for implementing healthy school lunches.84
GREENING THE SCHOOLYARD
|School gardens can help teach ecology, nutrition, science, math, art and social studies.|
One of the most creative ways to connect what children eat with teaching about health, nutrition and the environment, is to actually create a garden at school and grow food on site. This is a burgeoning movement across the country with literally thousands of gardens flourishing, as individual schools, districts and state education departments take it on. As green schoolyard expert Sharon Danks writes, “many schools around the world have planted edible gardens that they use to grow vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers. The students plant the gardens and then raise, harvest, and eat the crops, improving their nutrition, their knowledge about plant growth, and their patience.”85 Gardens that are integrated into school resource use planning, can compost food and yard waste, plowing it back into the soil. Teachers use the gardens to teach basic ecological principles hands–on, while teaching to standards on subjects such as science, math and social studies. They can also use the gardens for fostering art, music and much more.86
In many senses, the school gardens movement is a subset of a broader effort to promote ecological or green school yards. As Sharon Danks explains, “ecological schoolyards are outdoor learning environments that teach ecological principles through the design of the schoolyard landscape. They can substantially improve the appearance of school grounds while creating hands–on resources that allow teachers to lead exciting ‘fieldtrips’without ever leaving school property.”87 In a sense a counterpart to the efforts to build high–performance school buildings, those advocating for green school yards aim to transform a school’s outdoor environment, turning at least some of it from barren ground or blacktop to a living, healthy space that encourages creative play, environmental education and community participation. Danks and others have documented hundreds of inspiring efforts in the US and around the world where schools and communities have organized to turn the outdoor school landscape into a thriving, living zone. For instance, in San Francisco in 2004, voters approved a school bond that, in addition to other priorities, allocated $2 million to create outdoor learning environments in 13 schools.88
Ultimately, to re–conceptualize our schools as green and healthy spaces, we need to strive to make them free of both violence and commercialism. We need to eliminate the multiplicity of health hazards our children face—whether they be toxins in the classroom, or junk food in the cafeteria. We need to create buildings and school yards that follow ecological principles, and provide the opportunity to teach about them. And we need to conceive of the space schools occupy as not ending at the playground fence, but rather extending to the broader sets of communities and ecosystems locally, nationally and even globally.
PILLAR 3: SPECIFIC STEPS FORWARD
1. Parents, Students and School Staff Should:
- Organize to ban soda, candy, junk food and fast food from school grounds.
- Create, or pressure your school district to create a healthy school lunch program, linked, if possible, to local or regional small–scale food producers.
- Organize school garden projects that engage children, teach about nutrition, and produce some food for their consumption. Promote the establishment of green schoolyards.
- Pressure school districts, along with local, state and federal governments to do the following:
2. School Districts and Local Governments Should:
- Follow and build upon the examples of New York City, Chicago, Nashville, San Francisco and others and ban soda, candy, junk food and fast food from all school grounds.
- Rethink the school lunch program and revamp it to prioritize nutrition, while, if possible, supporting local and regional small–scale food producers.
- Encourage the development of school gardens and green schoolyards.
- Adopt a wellness policy, based on the Childhood Obesity Prevention Agenda, which includes nutrition education and guidelines designed to promote student health and reduce childhood obesity.89
3. State Education Departments and Governments Should:
- Follow the examples of Texas, Maine, California and others by moving to ban soda, candy, junk food and fast food from all school grounds.
- Provide support for Farm to School initiatives that benefit small farmers, while providing fresh vegetables and healthy meals for children.
- Create mandatory statewide guidelines for healthy, nutritious lunches.
- Support school gardens and green school yard initiatives as a way to teach to educational standards.
4. The Federal Government:
- Congress should pass the “Prevention of Childhood Obesity Act”which would require schools that receive federal funds to ban junk food in vending machines, and would financially support schools that provide healthy lunches.
- Congress should pass the HeLP (Healthy Lifestyles and Prevention) America Act (SB 2558) which would require schools to formulate wellness policies, bring more fresh fruits and vegetables to schools, and restore the authority of the Secretary of Agriculture to regulate the sale of junk food in schools.90