Food fighter: Connecting kids to their food

Jilliann Feltham’s favorite activity as a first-grade teacher was storytime. It was a time to relax a bit before lunch, get immersed in a far-away world, and let those little blooming imaginations take over. Except for one problem: the students were distracted. Not the normal kind of distracted that six-year-olds get, but a kind of chronic distracted. Sure, some of the kids would be tuned-in with enthusiasm, but a third of them were falling asleep and still another third were hyper-energetic. While this continued to happen day after day, Jilliann discovered the source. “I knew that the issues they were facing were related to food and sleep.”

matters of the mind and body

In hindsight it seems all too clear that children learn best when they are rested and full.  And of course, poor food and sleep habits aren’t exclusive to children; adults suffer from some of the very same issues every day (the dreaded 2:30 slump, anyone?). It is different with kids though, because children’s minds and bodies are still developing. And so are their habits.

With more than 13 million children considered food-insecure and another 13 million diagnosed with obesity across the United States, the problem seems rather daunting (Feeding America, Aacap). How do we feed our children, feed them well, and prepare them with healthy eating habits for life?

Public schools are already taking on this challenge through initiatives like the National School Lunch Program, which provides students with either free or reduced-cost meals. While these meals are required to be healthy, it doesn’t mean kids are eating all of the healthy options.

So, how do we educate kids and make these options more appealing?

Programs like Smarter Lunchrooms, a research-based way for schools to nudge students to healthy choices and organizations like the National Farm to School Network, a group dedicated to bringing local foods and food education to schools, are beginning to fill the gap in healthy food education. But the gaps are still pretty big.

filling the gap

Jilliann discovered this gap in her own school as well. When she wanted to know what the school was doing for the students’ health she emailed the Director of Child Nutrition for the entire district, a woman name Sheri Otterson.  What she learned blew her mind: they were doing a lot. Osborn School District had hired bakers to bake all the bread for their schools, which both created jobs and made a healthier peanut butter and jelly sandwich. They also made all their sauces and dressings in house, which cut down on added sugars and made the food more flavorful.

Jilliann was struck by her own ignorance as to what was going on under the same roof. And she was frustrated that no one around her seemed to know either. When Sheri challenged her to identify the problem, she knew exactly what it was: there was a missing link between the classroom and the cafeteria.

Now, Sheri asked her, what are we going to do about it?

self-taught

Remember, Jilliann is a first-grade teacher. She doesn’t have a degree in nutrition or experience in the food industry, but she was passionate about helping her students reach their maximum potential. Now that meant focusing on food; what it is, where it comes from, how it was grown, and how it interacts with the body.

How did she accomplish this? She taught herself. She spent her time off working on organic farms around the world through the World Wide Organization for Organic Farming. She spent hours researching and reading articles about childhood nutrition. She dove head-first into school procurement policies for fresh produce. And she reached out to nutrition professionals like Cory Alexander, the current Director of Child Nutrition for Osborn School District, and Ashley Schimke, the Farm to School and School Garden Specialist for the Arizona Department of Education. Her passion, research, and connections proved to be a solid foundation for her new position: Nutrition Education Coordinator for Osborn School District.

She learned quickly that childhood nutrition in schools is a beast of a problem. It is incredibly complicated to untangle the web of policies, funding, and socio-economic factors that drive that chronic distraction that Jilliann saw in the classroom. But she focused on what was within her locus of control: educating the students, teachers and community in the district.

making connections

As Jilliann began to explore the world of food nutrition she discovered a distinct connection between food, our society, economy, and the environment. It isn’t just about nutritious food; it is about good food grown well. It is about providing jobs for fair prices, celebrating food diversity, and treating the land ethically so our food in turn helps us grow and sustain ourselves. But these connections are not currently reflected in our school classrooms or cafeterias.

A recent study found that 92% of children in Australia did not know that bananas grow on trees (Anderson). And this is just one example of how far away kids have become from the source of their food. Well, Jilliann asked, how can we bring them closer? She wanted to make sure that her students knew that herbs like rosemary, mint and ginger grew from the ground. And you can’t have mac and cheese without cows. And wheat. And lots of people.

Bringing kids closer to their food is an easy way to introduce them to the wild web we call our food system, and how when this web breaks it effects our ability to have a healthy society. Food education also introduces them to new foods. It broadens their taste buds and their minds at the same time.

locus of control

So, how did Jillian help bring her students closer to food?

Sometimes it is as simple as a food tasting. Jilliann’s food tastings either introduce a new food or reintroduce a familiar food in new ways. For example, during the last week of school before winter break, Jillian created a lesson on the popular holiday food gingerbread cookies. She specifically focused on the ginger. This wild root not only makes delicious cookies, she taught, but was also used as medicine for upset stomachs. She prepared ginger in three ways – candied ginger, carrot ginger soup, and ginger tea – and reintroduced it to wide-eyed first graders. They had mixed feelings about the ginger dishes, but now they know where those spicy cookies come from.

Other times, she works to physically bring students closer to their food by implementing school gardens at each school in the district. The students see firsthand how a seed grows into a carrot and are then able to pull it out of the ground and eat it. Growing their own food brings the food system directly into their hands. It also encourages them to eat healthy because they invest the time and energy into their food. And who doesn’t love eating a carrot directly from the ground?

Osborn School District also has a teaching kitchen. Jillian uses it to teach kids how to take those hard-grown vegetables and turn them into something delicious; something they can replicate at home. This part of her food education takes healthy choices and allows them to be available outside of school. The students are learning how to prepare good food. They are forming a habit.

If it was up to Jillian, she would find a way to sustainably grow all the cafeteria food, make everything from scratch, and every child would know and love each hearty meal. But, most of that is outside of her control. For now, she will continue to work on bridging the gap.

growing a legacy

Nearly three years since taking on her new position that she helped to create, she continues to learn about the best ways to tackle the systemic problem of childhood nutrition. In the same day she may work on lobbying for better procurement policies, teach children about ginger, and shop for the best irrigation piping for the school gardens.

In September she led the third-annual district-wide planting day. Every teacher and student, in the district, takes the day to plant seeds in their school gardens. Every child gets their hands in the dirt and begins the process of making food grow at their own school. And they do it every year. She hopes it will be her legacy.

Jilliann may be the one bringing food education to the tiny masses, but it is with a community of support behind her. Supervisors, teachers, and families help her with new and innovative projects like creating a seed library at the schools to use for next year’s planting day and for students to try growing food at home. And she still gets to have storytime with the students. Except now all the stories are about food.

meet the author

I’m Molly Cashion. My passion for sustainability started when I was young and tromping through the rivers and streams of Tennessee. Through my education, I learned about the wonders of the natural world and some of the problems facing both our environment and the people that inhabit it. It all came together for me when I was working in Alabama. I saw how some people unfairly bear the burden of environmental hazards. Working with people, I realized that we can use our compassion for each other to change the world we live in for the better. Now I work with teachers to implement sustainability education in K-12 school throughout the nation. I love it every day.

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