Editor’s Note: University of Dayton Assistant Professor Diana Cuy Castellanos asked one of her students, Sydney Antolini, to co-write this month’s nutrition column on how children can be encouraged to eat more fruits and vegetables, focusing on school lunch programs.
The Center for Disease Control estimates that nearly one in three children in the United States are overweight or obese. Additionally, childhood obesity has nearly doubled in the last 30 years and tripled among adolescents.
While there are many factors that influence this significant increase, school systems and school cafeterias may be a contributing element to this issue or a way to address it, for they are supplying more than 31 million children with one to two meals per day. The School Lunch Program began in 1946.
During this time, the U.S. government bought commodity foods from U.S. farmers for the School Lunch Program in hopes of boosting the agricultural sector and addressing malnutrition within the schools. Over the years the program experienced changes.
In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act was passed in an attempt to improve the quality of food provided to students through the School Lunch Program and address the obesity issue. The Act placed limits on nutrients, such as saturated fats and sodium, and required that all children have one fruit and one vegetable on their plates.
However, the Act has received scrutiny from children, parents, administrators, and food service workers saying the children are not used to eating the foods so plate waste is high.
To improve the diets of students, efforts need to be made to increase consumption of the fruits and vegetables and decrease waste.
As school communities, parents, teachers, administrators, food service directors and workers, health promoters, we need to find ways to promote consumption of healthy foods and decrease plate waste. Healthy nutrition can decrease risk of obesity and disease and increase the cognitive function of our children; giving them a chance to be successful.
Recently, I worked with a sixth-grade student from Snowhill Elementary School in Springfield who had a desire to see his classmates eating healthier. He developed a children’s story, emphasizing the importance of fruit and vegetables and read it to second- and third-grade children. Before and after the book was read, I measured plate waste and saw a 54 percent decrease in fruit plate waste and 43 percent decrease in vegetable plate waste.
This showed that with some simple programming we may be able to encourage consumption of these foods by our children. In the study, collaborating with and educating students on nutrition brought attention to the issue and raised awareness in the school system of the need for better nutrition education.
There are other programs targeting the consumption of fruits and vegetables in our children. One example are the farm-to-school programs across the country where local produce is bought from farmers and provided to children in the schools.
Also, farmers, health promoters, teachers and dietitians are working in schools to expose kids to different foods through taste tests, gardening, nutrition education and cooking classes.
In Springfield, Springfield Promise Neighborhoods received a Farm-to-School Grant in 2015 and implemented school gardens in several area schools and provided education around food production and consumption to elementary and middle school children.
We have the power and tools to influence and improve child nutrition, but ultimately, it requires motivation, dedication creativity and collaboration to achieve it. So what can you do to promote better nutrition in our schools?
Diana Cuy Castellanos is an assistant professor at the University of Dayton and a registered dietitian. She teaches courses on nutrition and fitness and nutritional health in communities. Email: email@example.com.