For most of us, lunch was our favorite “subject” in school. But how many of us knew how the food was prepared or what was in the food we were eating? Home economics classes used to be a staple in high schools, but in recent decades they’ve disappeared in favor of academics-focused curriculum.
As these classes disappeared, food education disappeared with them. Why is food education in schools so important and what are school boards doing to bring this kind of education back into the mainstream?
The Problem of Childhood Obesity
Roughly one out of every four children is considered overweight or obese. While part of it can be blamed on our increasingly sedentary lifestyle — children are more likely to sit playing video games than they are to head outside and be active — much of it is due to the fact that our diet has changed dramatically.
For adults, they say that losing weight is 10 percent exercise and 90 percent diet, so it makes sense that a poor diet has led to changes in our weight and our health.
We eat out more, we consume more junk food and we aren’t educated about the food that we eat. Young parents — especially those that have graduated from high school in the last 15 years — are at the same disadvantage. The lack of food education in schools means these parents are on their own when it comes to making the best food choices for their children.
For the Love of Food
Kids love learning — especially about food! A trial program called Pilot Light in Chicago ran a program for more than 1,500 elementary school students and found that not only did they enjoy learning about food, but also that more than three quarters of them felt like they had enough information to make healthy food choices in the lunchroom and at home. Many even felt like they had enough information to advise their parents on how to make healthy choices at home.
Around the World
The United States ranks among the poorest developed countries in the world when it comes to food education. In Japan, food is cooked and served by the students — lunch is as much of a class as any of the academic subjects. In France, students aren’t allowed to bring lunch form home and are introduced to strong and varied flavors from a very young age.
In Italy, students are served a two-course meal with sides of vegetables and fruit. Nutrition and food history are also an integral part of their curriculum.
In the United States — we get the basics. We know that nutrition comes from food. If we’re lucky, we’re taught that calories give you energy, but beyond that, there aren’t a lot of resources for students to learn how to cook food, where the nutrients actually come from or how to eat healthy — at least not until college, that is.
Here are a few more school lunches around the world.
Brazil has the world’s oldest school feeding program, and requires 30% of meal ingredients to be organic and sourced from local farms. This standard has led to cooperation across various educational, agricultural and health departments to support local farmers in introducing organic farming and providing schools with high-quality nutritional produce. Some schools even have diverse menus that cater to the dietary needs of children with special health conditions. Thus, this sustainable program benefits the lives of farmers and students alike.
Public schools in Brazil are also fighting obesity and malnutrition by incorporating gardening into the school curriculum. Kids grow their food, then decide which produce to use in their daily lunches. Programs like these help students understand the farm-to-table concept, as well as what it means to be healthy.
School menus in Greece also offer nutritious options, many of which include green vegetables. Green beans with tomato and feta, roasted chicken and vegetables and spinach pie often appear as the main courses in lunchrooms. With each meal, children receive three to four servings of vegetables. And they tend to look forward to eating them. Cooking most of the veggies with olive oil or tomato sauce makes them tastier and, in many cases, healthier, since the fat causes higher absorption of antioxidants and vitamins.
Moreover, many Greek schools maintain several food policy objectives that aim to teach kids healthy habits, improve nutrition and prevent malnutrition and obesity. Annual health education programs teach the fundamentals of healthy eating habits and proper nutrition. Additionally, there are various policies in place to maintain nutrient-based standards concerning the amount of sugar, fat, sodium and saturated fats in lunch menu items.
Every lunch provided by Swedish schools consists of a hot meal, a full salad bar, bread and a beverage of milk or water. Schools do not provide desserts, fried food or soft drinks, but they do offer special vegetarian lunches to those with dietary restrictions. These lunches are both nutritious and free of charge for every student enrolled in the compulsory school system. About 26% of schools also use a web-based tool to measure meal quality based on aspects such as service, environment and nutrition.
Additionally, Swedish elementary schools must offer at least 100 grams of fruit and vegetables at each lunch, fish at least once a week and black pudding or liver monthly. Policies also restrict the use of salt in cooking, and additional salt is not available to students.
School food standards apply to many schools and academies in England. These standards state that these schools must supply high-quality meat or fish, vegetables and fruits, bread, cereal and potatoes. They also forbid serving drinks with added sugar, chips, chocolate or other desserts in school lunches and vending machines. And the regulations do not allow schools to serve more than two servings of breaded, deep-fried or battered food a week.
The curriculum also emphasizes healthy eating and nutrition with home economics classes, health education courses and learning for life and work programs. Several organizations also support educational systems, enabling them to implement these programs, so students receive and apply proper food skills and knowledge to lead healthy lives.
In 2015, chef Jamie Oliver launched a campaign to make food education compulsory for all students in G20 countries. Most school lunches don’t meet nutritional standards. Students aren’t getting the four basic food groups — and most of the school lunches in the U.S. look pretty gross.
Oliver also started a Kitchen Garden Project to teach students how to cook food, where their food comes from and how to grow their own produce to use in the kitchen, in addition to lesson plans, teaching notes and recipes for children to help teachers incorporate food education into their classrooms in a way that will help children learn how to make healthy choices.
Elementary Nutrition Education
Elementary school teachers may be restricted to a fairly strict curriculum, but that doesn’t mean they can’t incorporate food and nutrition education into their lessons. Even tying it into whatever is being served for lunch that day can help make it easier for students, even young ones, to understand nutrition and how to make smart food choices.
Many elementary classrooms also serve snacks. This is another opportunity to teach nutrition and healthy food choices. If nuts are not allowed due to allergies, other healthy snack alternatives like fruits, vegetables, popcorn and other options allow teachers to instruct your children in healthy food choices without taking too much time away from other academic pursuits.
The road to bringing food education back into our nation’s schools will be a long one with many obstacles to overcome. It is one of the most important things we can do for our children, though, so we need to take the steps to make these classes a primary part of public education, as they used to be.
Home economics classes might seem like something old and out of date, but they can help our students make smart food choices and enjoy healthy and nutritious food long after they graduate from high school and head out into the world on their own.