Sowing the seeds of a slimmer America

As American waistlines widen, some schools launch gardening programmes to encourage children to develop healthy habits.

New Orleans, Louisiana – If Americans don’t change their ways, more than half could be obese by 2030, according to “F as in Fat,” a new report by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Given that sobering probability, a number of efforts across the country are teaching better nutritional habits to children, who will be adults by 2030.

One such programme centres on a vibrant, productive schoolyard garden at the Langston Hughes Academy in New Orleans, Louisiana. It is part of a larger programme called The Edible Schoolyard, which has more than 100 chapters across the United States.

Small children walk in a line past tidy rows of kale, bok choy, and carrots. Others sit around small picnic tables waiting for garden class to begin. Nearby is a chicken coop and herb garden. Amy Zellweger, a teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, oversees it all. She hopes what these students see and learn in their schoolyard garden will translate to healthier habits down the road. “You’re giving them information about the choices that they make,” she says. “So maybe the next time they want a snack, they reach for an apple instead of a bag of hot chips.”

Students at Langston Hughes Academy clearly enjoy their time in the garden, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they all enjoy vegetables. Inside, hundreds of second and third graders eat lunch in the cafeteria. As they wrap up, tray after tray of broccoli and mixed vegetables get thrown out. Teacher Patricia Yarls says that is partially because many of the students are just not accustomed to seeing vegetables on their plate.

 Obesity on rapid rise in the US


“They don’t eat them at home because their parents, you know, because of our culture here in New Orleans, we have so many other things that we can eat, like fried food. So they’re just not introduced to those vegetables. But here, because we have the garden, they get to see greens and other fruits and vegetables growing in the garden. So we try and encourage them to eat some of those vegetables.”

The fact that kids don’t always want to eat their school cafeteria vegetables is, of course, not a new phenomenon. In 2010, US President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kid Act into law, to try to encourage healthier options. This piece of legislation gives money to schools that agree to a set of nutritional standards like school meals that cap calories and starches, and that include more whole-wheat products as well as fruits and vegetables.

But just last month, the United States Department of Agriculture, which administers the programme, was forced to loosen some of these requirements after complaints by parents and students that lunches had become too small and did not provide enough sustenance.

Ed Bruske, a DC-based food policy blogger, says these government regulations are all wrong. “You can’t get kids to eat healthy,” he says.

“If there is spinach lasagna on the menu, parents think ‘wow, that’s great, kids are eating spinach lasagna’. It sounds so good on the menu. But they’re really just picking through the lasagna and throwing out the spinach,” Bruske explains. “It makes no sense. It is a horrible waste.”

I really hope that it becomes normal to go to a food stand, produce stand or store and buy fresh food.

– Rashida Ferdinand, community activist and gardener

Bruske has spent time in school kitchens and cafeterias from Washington, DC to California and even as far as Sweden. His conclusion: you just need to get rid of the unhealthy options.

“The whole idea of setting national standards and having Congress involved is just a waste of time. Our approach to school food is wrong. It’s all based on federal subsidies and the government dictating, thou shalt serve this. Whether kids will eat it or whether it is cooked, well – that’s a different thing. Let kids pick from healthy food bars. They’ll come out okay.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, Louisiana is the second-fattest state in the country, with 33 percent of adults obese, as well as 13 percent of children under the age of five. The issue here is pressing.

Rashida Ferdinand is a community activist and gardener in New Orleans who works with teenagers in her neighbourhood.

“I really hope that it becomes normal to go to a food stand, produce stand or store and buy fresh food and that we enjoy the taste of fresh food and we enjoy those options,” says Ferdinand. “And I hope that the young people we’re working with – they’re 16 years old right now and they’ll be 26 in ten years – so I hope this becomes a way of life.”

Source: Al Jazeera