An elementary school switches to vegetarian-only meals in its cafeteria, test scores go up and the number of students classified as overweight and obese decreases: sound too good to be true?
Public School 244 in Flushing, Queens, is the first U.S. elementary school whose cafeteria has gone completely vegetarian, as Care2′s Beth Buczynski recently wrote. Students can bring their own lunch, with or without meat; 90 percent are opting for the vegetarian cafeteria offerings — quesadillas, organic roasted tofu and braised black beans. Principal Robert Groff tells the New York Daily News that the vegetarian options offered by the city’s school lunch program were simply better. “I’ve never been presented with an option that’s ‘organic lean chicken,’” he comments.
PS 244 students are not eating mystery meat. Even more, the “mystery” about the food they’re eating is taken away as they also attend a weekly class about making healthy food choices.
Other schools throughout the United States are striving to teach kids the importance of eating nutritious, responsibly produced food via visits to farms, hosting visits from farmers and having students grow their own vegetables in school gardens. Helping kids become “food literate” is key to fostering lifelong healthy eating habits, research from the Children’s Food Trusts shows.
How Do You Teach Teenagers to “Eat Healthy”?
The PS 244 students are young and fortunate to be getting a good start in developing healthy eating habits. Teenagers in high school are more likely to assert their independence and defy efforts to get them to eat healthfully. A recent collaboration between the San Francisco Unified School District (S.F.U.S.D.) and the design firm IDEO to “re-imagine the school food system” addressed these issues with positive results.
Rather than administrators conducting an assessment, writing reports and making recommendations, more than 1,300 students, parents, nutrition staff members, principals, teachers, administrators and community partners actively participated in workshops, and reviewed prototypes and experiential exhibits. Students did not just feel they had a choice; they were asked (to their surprise) about what they wanted to eat.
IDEO and S.F.U.S.D devised 10 design recommendations that drew on students’ different stages of development:
For elementary school, they imagine lunchrooms where kids sit together at round tables and eat family style — learning to serve one another in stages (healthiest foods are brought out first by nutrition staff workers who oversee their own carts).
For middle school, the focus shifts toward more independence; students can choose “grab-n-go lunches” from mobile carts and then sit in spaces designed by them.
And in high school, it’s all about choice; students multitasking on their short lunch break leverage the convenience of new technology, like the app tested out in the simulation [which allowed students to choose what they'd like for lunch in the morning], and are rewarded with discounts for making healthy choices and eating at school more frequently. They spend less time waiting in lines and more time hanging with friends.
The S.F.U.S.D. is now investigating how to implement the recommendations in a cost-effective manner.
School officials might take a lesson from PS 244. The school’s lunches are so good that, last Tuesday, PS 244 was recognized by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that promotes plant-based diets.
Getting kids to eat healthfully from an early age pays off. My teenage autistic son, Charlie, never got in the habit of eating candy as he was on various special diets (including a gluten-free, casein-free one) when he was younger. Some told us that we were “depriving” him by not letting him eat “whatever he wanted.” Now that he is older and is much more insistent on choosing what he wants to eat — and with higher rates of obesity among kids with disabilities in mind — we’re very glad that he turns down most sugary foods.
Teaching kids to be “food literate” — about where food comes from, about how to cook — is not mandatory in U.S. schools. PS 244 and the S.F.U.S.D. show how teaching food literacy is valuable, so kids make smart choices about food not because they are told that something is “good for them,” but because they know it is.
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