On Food, Childhood Obesity, and Gardens

Listen, I’m no expert. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about food (okay I always think about food), childhood obesity, and gardens.

Yesterday, I went back to my TFA placement school, a Metro Nashville Public School, to see my former 7th graders graduate from middle school. It was so great to see each one of them, many I haven’t seen in over a year! As I hugged each one, cried, and told them how proud I am of their hard work, I also was facing a stark reality.

Many of the 12- and 13-year olds I taught last year went  to the lunchroom everyday to have a biscuit for breakfast, a slice of processed pizza and ice cream for lunch, plus of side of cheetos. Processed food without any nutritional value to speak of. I saw their mood swings, drowsiness, frustrations, ADHD. I saw their weight. How much of these conditions can we (should we?) blame on home life, heredity, or human nature? Maybe (probably) the culprit is what fuel they are trying to run on. It’s not working.

What was so disturbing yesterday was watching several children gain fifty pounds right before my eyes. I had seen them on the last day of 7th grade, overweight; here they were at 8th grade graduation, obese.

What have we done? And more importantly, what do we do?

Recently, I’ve traveled to Delvin FarmsNoble Springs DairyBellevue Edible Learning Lab, and Hillsboro High School’s Greenhouse. I’ve had lengthy conversations with Sean Siple who manages the West Nashville Farmers Market, Peter Anderson, a local architect and agrarian activist, and David Cloniger, a food resource manager for Second Harvest Food Bank. No one has the perfect answer, but everyone wants to see change.

Today, I read a tweet by Mud Baron, the self-proclaimed “banisher of asphalt for kids.” He said, and I tweet,

Yo ! Why hasn’t Michelle Obama called for “a garden in every school?”  

Is that the answer? Government money for a mandated garden?

Here are the problems I see with the “government-mandate” solution:

  • Schools need more money than the government can provide to maintain a functioning, viable garden.
  • Farming EXPERTISE is needed to establish and manage a garden, and that is hard to come by (and again, hard to afford)
  • Most teachers do not feel they have the time or ability to incorporate garden-based learning into the school day, particularly due to high stakes testing and higher-stakes evaluations
  • Without this money, expertise, and school involvement–any gardens that do get started under a government mandate will likely fail
What I’ve seen that IS working (at least here in Nashville)
  • Committed volunteers and families willing to do the hard work to make a garden grow
  • Schools that are willing to let kids be outside working in the dirt, and letting “mastery” be secondary to real experience
  • School systems supplementing cafeteria produce with locally grown, organic goods
  • Bucket gardening–providing produce to low income families with low cost and risk
  • Focusing in on a handful of community gardens rather than a garden at every single school
So there you have it folks. All my thoughts so far, and surely there will be more to come.
But you can’t just leave without telling me what you think. If you’ve read this far, then obviously you must care at least a smidge. Plus, you have an assignment… 
Leave a reply answering at least one of these questions:
1. Do you think the government should legislate school gardening? How?
2. What have you seen that is working to get better food in the hands of our community’s children?
3. What role to parents play in the obesity epidemic, and how can that group be galvanized in this mission?
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Comments

  1. really interesting Shannalee! I look forward to looking into that more… it seems like such great undertaking, but if you just started at one school…

  2. I don't have answers to your questions, so this isn't really a response, but this post reminded me of Karen le Billon and her "French Kids Eat Everything" book. It's all about the wonders of the way French children eat, especially in schools, and I've been dying to read it. I find it fascinating compared to how American kids eat: http://karenlebillon.com/2012/05/22/is-your-child-eating-celery-salad-roasted-endive-and-grilled-fish-at-school-this-week-thats-what-french-kids-are-eating/

  3. But to actually better answer one of your questions – I've seen this work here in Nashville. A buddy of mine, from Nashville Urban Harvest, works at Glencliff High School as their school garden manager. I'm pretty sure he is compensated, though. And it is A LOT of hard work. But he has seen a mostly positive reaction from the kids there as they begin to learn and understand more about where real food comes from. I think if we start doing this even earlier (like, Kindergarten) then by the time they reach high school, it won't be as difficult to get them interested. Maybe programs like Ameri-Corps or Peace Corps can start doing this kind of work at schools. Maybe they already do? And will conservatives ever be comfortable with "Marxists" teaching our kids how to grow food? Haha, that's the real challenge….

  4. Exactly. There's always straw-man arguments being thrown around. Such as claiming Michelle Obama is trying to come into our homes and tell us what groceries we are allowed to purchase. But yea, I think the answer really lies in getting kids educated as early as possible about healthy foods, and actually getting them excited about it (in other words, have them get their hands dirty). That will change the culture over time. But, as you say, how do we pay for it? Answers only bring about more questions, don't they?

  5. Great thoughts, Ben. Even if conservatives don't want the government to "tell us what we can and can't eat,"– the truth is– for many kids, the government is already making that decision. If 95% of a school is on free or reduced lunch (which my school was), that means the majority of these children are eating 2 out of 3 meals a day on just what is provided in school. So, if the government is ALREADY feeding our children, why not make the food better? It seems like a no-brainer. But how to do it, and how to pay for it? … age old questions.

  6. This is a tough issue that's been on the front-burner of my mind for about 4 or 5 years now. There needs to be a complete change in the culture, but it has got to start somewhere. That is the tricky part. And I remember when Let's Move started, I thought Michelle Obama would be a powerful voice of influence into the lives of a lot of people that really need to hear her message. But, of course, she is vilified by the right for trying to "tell us what we can and can't eat." It's a real shame more people can't come to a consensus on how to change public school food for the better.

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