N is for Nutrition: Can schools help prevent childhood obesity? An online live event

What kind of role can and should schools be taking to help keep kids at an optimal weight?

Image courtesy of The Kitchen Community
Image courtesy of The Kitchen Community

According to a Kaiser Permanente survey published last summer, some 90 percent of Americans expect schools to take the lead in any community effort to reduce childhood obesity. This makes sense, after all – the vast majority of school-age children spent most of their waking hours at school, and most partake of school lunches. Further, the Centers for Disease Control pointed out in a report about how schools can promote kids’ health, research now shows that a healthy body is critical to a healthy mind. In our age of winner-take-all standardized testing, no stone can be left unturned.

For those and other reasons, a growing number of schools are taking part in a drive to do just that. Fresh, nutrient-filled food is increasingly on the menu. The Federal government has stepped in by instituting new standards for school lunches. Education about good nutrition and its relationship to a healthy body weight is on the rise.

Can school gardens harvest health?

Some schools are going a step further by growing fresh edibles on school grounds, and asking kids to help harvest them. The movement had a visible beginning some 17 years ago when chef Alice Waters started her Edible Schoolyard project in Berkeley, Calif. Research so far suggests that “garden-based learning” may increase students’ knowledge of nutrition and promote healthy eating habits, as well as teaching team-building skills and an appreciation for the environment.

Image courtesy of The Kitchen Community
Image courtesy of The Kitchen Community

A number of local and national initiatives have, er, sprung up with plant-based missions.  The Kitchen Community, an initiative based in Boulder, Colo., makes the school garden the basis of an outdoor classroom that includes benches and artwork.

“It’s fundamentally changing the built environment and using that as a catalyst towards experiential learning and imaginative play. We know that will raise test scores, and we know the impact will be profound on what kids eat and how they eat,” says Travis Robinson, Managing Director.

So far, Kitchen Community has helped create 155 school and community center “Learning Gardens” with an additional 11 community gardens across the U.S. Installing the Gardens, however, isn’t an inexpensive or quick endeavor, and involves much involvement with school and community facilities managers.

Cheryl Moder, director of the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative, says the group takes a policy, environmental, and systems approach to obesity prevention, working to improve access to healthy, fresh food and promote physical activity.

The Initiative’s work with school gardens allowed community members to help with gardening, and in some cases to have plots on school property.

“It helps increase the sustainability of school gardens.  All too often once the project champion leaves the school plot goes fallow,” says JuliAnna Arnett, who manages operations and food systems for the Initiative.

The group works with partners in multiple sectors to prevent and reduce childhood obesity through a variety of strategies, including healthy and local food procurement for hospitals and schools, while also focusing local efforts around two overarching strategies: Reducing consumption of sweetened drinks and increasing safe routes to healthy places.

How are efforts like these making a difference? Join this week’s live online Google+ Hangout this Thursday at 2pm ET to discuss these issues and more. Tweet questions to #greatchallenges and we’ll answer as many as we can on air. Participants include Great Challenges Team Member, Melissa Halas-Liang, and our guests for this discussion: Cheryl Moder and JuliAnna Arnett from the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative, Travis Robinson from The Kitchen Community, and Laura Hatch from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Amy Lynn Smith will return as our moderator.