More than half of healthcare dollars in the U.S. today are spent treating chronic conditions , many of which are preventable. Poor eating habits and diets lacking good nutrition have been linked directly to health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
Recognizing this, healthcare providers are increasingly addressing how and what Americans eat. They’re spreading the message that food is medicine—and that nutrition and good cooking habits can be employed to promote health.
This message is making inroads into higher education. In the last few years, more than 40 medical schools have added culinary medicine programs, according to a May 2018 report by University Business magazine. The goal is to make aspiring physicians understand the link between food and health, so they can help their patients make better food choices.
The concept of food as medicine isn’t just the province of colleges and universities, however. K-12 schools also have an opportunity—some would say a responsibility—to help students improve their health profiles through the selection of food items.
After all, helping kids establish healthy eating habits is easier than trying to break decades of poor food choices in adults. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control shows nearly 1 in 5 young people in the U.S. is obese. This often starts young people on a path to various health issues once considered only adult problems. Clearly, an intervention is needed.
Accentuating the positive
When it comes to kids and food as medicine, it’s not necessarily about drawing a direct line between ice cream and obesity. It’s about emphasizing the positive value of healthy nutrition, says Maureen Pisanick, RDN-LDN, President and Chief Nutrition Officer of Pisanick Partners, an Ohio-based nutrition and operations consulting firm.
“We focus on developing positive messaging to use with students,” Pisanick says. “We talk about what foods can do to help you.” For instance, healthy food choices can improve academic and athletic success.
Pisanick says today’s students are more savvy about food, probably because their parents are. “Younger parents seem to be more concerned about local, organic, non-GMO and other food attributes perceived as healthy. They’re also participating in school to a greater degree. As a result, there’s a notable buzz about eating healthy, even in elementary school.”
Parents aren’t always steering children in the right direction, though. “A parent might say her child needs a gluten-free diet yet not really know what that means. Schools need to provide scientific and fact-based information that educates parents and kids alike.”
Pisanick advises clients to treat the cafeteria as an extension of the classroom. “It’s the best place to teach children about the importance of good nutrition.”
The cafeteria as an interactive classroom
That’s an approach Julie Metcalf, SNS, wholeheartedly agrees with. As Director of School Nutrition Services for Montgomery County Schools (MCS) in Kentucky, Metcalf operates her cafeterias as interactive learning labs.
Recently, she created a series of 10 “learning centers” in her middle school cafeterias and invited fourth-graders to learn about where food comes from. “We had different activities at each center, like a seed identification exercise. Kids rotated to different centers every four minutes so they didn’t get bored. It was a really fun and informative day.”
That’s just one of a series of grade-based events and activities Metcalf has planned for the 2018-19 school year. For example, preschoolers will be initiated into the “Two-Bite Club” the USDA has developed to introduce MyPlate to children. Kindergarten and first-grade students will tour a mobile dairy classroom and watch Daisy the Cow being milked. Third-graders are receiving lessons in dining etiquette. Fifth-graders will sit down with foodservice staff for hot tea and cookies.
Events like these make a big impact on students, Metcalf says. “We’re giving them lessons they can take with them the rest of their lives, from the nutrition guidance of MyPlate to the proper behavior for a lunchtime job interview.”
These are also opportunities for foodservice staffers to interact with students. “Our tea-and-cookies event is designed to get kids to talk and share ideas with us in addition to teaching them about the custom of afternoon tea.”
Pisanick has helped her school clients set up similar learning opportunities, including farm field trips, aquaponics demonstrations and culinary immersion experiences, like making smoothies.
Engaging the community
Nutrition education needn’t be restricted to the cafeteria and classroom. Nor is it just for students. Pisanick suggests that foodservice departments go into the community to spread the word about what kids should be eating.
That’s what Montgomery County Schools Catering Supervisor Sandy Jones does when she makes her weekly drop-off of 90 or so meals to the local senior citizen community center.
“All of our catered events give us an opportunity to talk about the school lunch program,” Jones says. “I might say, this is an item we serve to kids, and it opens up a discussion about the quality and nutrition we deliver to schoolchildren.”
It also further improves quality and nutrition, as catering dollars are returned to the school program.
Some of those dollars help pay for MCS’ cafeteria signage, which includes professional full-color photos of fruits and vegetables displayed near the appropriate food offerings. In addition, a bright, bold “Local Goodness” sign is posted next to ingredients that are locally sourced.
Signs like these help students find their way to healthier food choices, Pisanick says. “It’s a really a form of coaching.”
The goal of teaching children about nutrition is to motivate them to make healthy eating a priority at home—and thereby help prevent or reverse food-related health issues. That’s a prescription for a better life, now and in the future.
Building a Better Nutrition Program
Maureen Pisanick advises schools to consider these factors to improve student nutrition:
1. Be an advocate.
Be the “voice of nutrition” in front of your administration and board. Share your expertise and direct students and parents to scientific, fact-based resources for more information.
2. Be transparent.
Tell students and parents where you procured food and what it contains. Have multiple vehicles to share the information.
3. Educate staff.
Train both front- and back-of-the-house personnel on professional childhood nutrition standards. You don’t need a big budget, the internet is filled with resources—like the free Gordon Food Service Nutrition Resource Center training opportunities available to customers on Gordon Experience™.
4. Eliminate barriers to access.
Low participation rates can sink any menu. Think outside the box—as Ohio’s Garfield Heights City Schools did when it started serving breakfast in the classroom. More students ate breakfast, school attendance increased and tardiness decreased.
5. Raise your expectations.
Don’t assume less-advantaged districts and students can’t afford or aren’t interested in healthier food choices. Pisanick has helped inner-city schools add fresh farm produce to the menu.
Connecting You to Community
K-12 schools can partner with local healthcare providers to develop nutrition-based curricula and supporting materials. Because Gordon Food Service works across all foodservice segments, we can help you connect with providers in your community. Ask your Sales Representative for more information.