by Molly Thacker on Aug 13 2009 Posted in Class notes
Milton Friedman said, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
Well, in Philadelphia schools, many students are able to get a lunch that is free, but not necessarily one that is healthy. The poor state of nutrition in school cafeterias should not only be alarming for advocates of health, but for advocates of quality, equitable education as well.
Without wholesome, nutritious food, our students are not able to perform to their academic potential. The lack of quality food in our schools has a direct impact on how well (or poorly) our youth can focus, study, learn, socialize, grow, and develop.
The issue of inadequate nutrition in schools has garnered national attention just recently, but I have seen the negative consequences for students more than once over the years.
One day, in sixth period, a student became agitated while working on a group project and began arguing with another student. By the time I crossed the room to address the situation, the student had grown increasingly more frustrated and flipped his desk on its side.
He was not trying to harm the other student, and didn’t, but it was still very atypical behavior for this particular student to be violent or confrontational in any way. I immediately took him to the side to speak to him about his behavior. After the mere inquiry of “what is going on with you?” his face lowered as he calmed himself down with a deep exhale and answered, “Miss, I’m sorry. I’m just really hungry.”
A situation like this could have been avoided if this particular student had the option of eating a healthy breakfast and lunch that day. Because there are so few healthy choices for students to eat at school–as well as a stigma associated with taking “freebies” –many students, like the one in my class that day, take the option of simply not eating at all. (Free lunch is available to all students at many schools through Philadelphia's universal feeding program, so individuals are not singled out as eligible. But some still feel stigmatized and are inclined not to partake, especially given the limited menu.)
Although the USDA does hold nutritional standards for the School Lunch Program, hamburgers and chicken nuggets are the only two offerings day in and day out at some schools. This lack of variety, as well as a need for more healtful choices, such as salads, has been voiced by many of my students.
Another barrier to adequate nutrition while at school is that many students do not make it to school early enough in the morning to take advantage of the free breakfast offered. This means that students are going eight hours, potentially, without putting something into their stomach.
After school, many students head directly to sports practice, an after-school program, or work. They may have stopped at the corner store beforehand, picking up a soda and some chips (unfortunately school isn’t the only place that offers subpar nutrition in the community), but that certainly does not provide adequate sustenance for the average teenager.
The American Heart Association recommends that after the age of two, children adopt a “heart-healthy” diet, swapping foods that are high in fat for a balanced, varied diet rich in nutrients which “supports natural growth and development”. We are doing a disservice to students’ personal growth and academic potential by not ensuring health as a critical part of their education.
In addition to the lack of healthful options, students’ religious beliefs and dietary preferences are often not honored by the meals that are offered in schools. Vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, kosher, or halal options are scarce. It is the policy of some schools that students are not allowed to bring in food from home, which means that students with dietary restrictions may not have a choice to eat at all. In the best case scenario, not eating could lead to fatigue and lack of focus and worst, not eating could lead to agitation and violence or becoming physically harmed while participating in sports.
Clearly, Philadelphia has a long way to go in securing healthy choices available to all students. One place to look for guidance, however, is California. The chef Alice Waters and her Chez Panisse Foundation are doing amazing work at The Edible Schoolyard. There, students not only eat healthy food that is readily available in their community, but they also grow, prepare, and learn about the food that is going into their bodies.
Also in the San Francisco area, De Marillac Academy has embraced a similar hands-on approach to offering nutrition education for their students. This kind of relevant curriculum that brings to life the issue of health and wellness is exactly what we need in Philadelphia public schools.
The good news is that there are a number of resources available to us here; we just need to tap into them and be creative in finding ways of connecting them to the students and schools that need them.
Mayor Nutter has established a sustainability office, which has local food production as one of its targets. The upcoming Joan Kroc Corps Community Center will have a one acre urban farm available for community services, among other amazing plans. The Urban Nutrition Initiative and Greensgrow Farms are doing their part to offer nutrition education and make healthy foods available to community members. The Food Trust in Philadelphia has a number of school-based programs.
And there are probably other initiatives in the area that I just don’t know about that are working tirelessly to ensure the young people in Philadelphia have an adequate quality and quantity of food to eat. However, if we are going to be earnest in the task of ensuring a quality education for every student in Philadelphia, we must consider not only what we are doing to nourish students’ minds, but their bodies as well.
I personally am interested and invested in working to find ways for healthy food to make its way into school cafeterias and am excited about the possibilities that exist for this opportunity in Philadelphia.