Kids are starting back to school. But for many children in Fort Wayne, this means a return to terribly unhealthy school lunches – fried chicken, hot dogs, hamburgers and desserts loaded with high-fructose corn syrup – that jeopardize the health and well-being of America’s next generation.
Indiana gets a bad grade for childhood obesity and malnutrition. In 2011, 15 percent of Indiana high school students were considered obese, meaning their body mass index was at or above the 95th percentile. It is unlikely that an overweight child will slim down by adulthood – 80 percent of children who are obese between ages 10 and 15 remain obese at age 25. Children who eat poorly are at greater risk of developing osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and liver problems later in life.
Fortunately, schools can play a key role to reverse this trend and reinforce healthy eating behaviors. By emphasizing hands-on nutrition education, such as school garden projects and classroom cooking demonstrations, and by providing fresh, local fruits and vegetables in cafeterias, schools can encourage students to improve their diets.
The Junior League of Fort Wayne and the McMillen Center for Health Education hosted the first Kids in the Kitchen event before the end of the 2011-12 school year at Glenwood Park Elementary School. The Kids in the Kitchen event led students through several stations where they learned about healthy portion sizes and making nutritious meal and snack choices, while participating in games and activities. The event ended with a healthy dinner provided for students and their families.
The dinner promoted the Family Table initiative, a program run by the McMillen Center for Health Education. The Family Table program encourages families to enjoy nutritious meals together. According to the initiative, families that eat three or more meals together each week are less likely to have children who become overweight, make unhealthy food choices and develop eating disorders.
In recent years, wellness policies have been implemented in schools nationwide to address childhood obesity. However, in a recent report from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University, fewer than a third of the wellness policies implemented in Indiana districts meet federal guidelines. The wellness policy for Fort Wayne Community Schools needs continued strict enforcement and specifically needs to include a pledge to participate in a Farm to School program.
Numerous schools in Indiana have joined the national Farm to School movement, which connects schools to local farms with the purpose of serving healthy, organic meals in cafeterias. Kids benefit from the fresh, nutritious and tasty food, and the state economy benefits from expanding local food networks.
By increasing the demand for agricultural products grown directly for human consumption, the Farm to School initiative has the potential to create billions in food sales that would benefit not only students but also Indiana farmers, businesses and consumers.
Internationally, at Kisoga Secondary School in Kampala, Uganda, students are being taught to manage a sustainable school garden that produces fresh fruits and vegetables. Food from the garden, served at lunch, has significantly decreased child malnutrition in the village. This is just one of many innovations highlighted by the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project and the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition in the new book Eating Planet: Challenge for Mankind and the Planet, which examines the effects of individual eating habits on health and the environment.
Childhood obesity and malnutrition are crippling problems for schoolchildren in Fort Wayne, Africa and elsewhere in the world. Innovative school food programs – such as Kids in the Kitchen, the Farm to School Project and Uganda’s Kisoga Secondary School – are making children healthier.
Fort Wayne needs more school programs that emphasize nutrition education, hands-on gardening, and healthy, locally sourced meals. Such programs can support healthy behavioral changes in children that can last a lifetime.