A Healthy Table

Healthy living is a key issue area addressed by most youth serving organizations these days. Boys & Girls Clubs of America, for example, places significant emphasis on three essential youth outcomes in its latest strategic plan, one of them being healthy lifestyles. In addition, a growing number of philanthropists are promoting healthy living—and offering an antidote for kids who need guidance in making healthy eating choices.

Healthy eating isn’t always an option for many of the kids in San Francisco’s Visitation Valley, for example, one of the 47 poorest residential areas in the country. But with the help of private funding, including $20,000 from the San Francisco Foundation, a community foundation serving the Bay Area, philanthropists hope to change that. Thanks to their generosity, Visitation Valley will soon be home to the Visitation Valley Greenway, a combination of nature trails and community garden projects designed to improve the quality of life and eating habits of children.

“This project is all about connections between healthy activities, healthy eating, and healthy outcomes,” explains Sara Ying Rounsaville, director of media and government affairs for the San Francisco Foundation. “It’s always a good thing to start young.”

These days, philanthropists couldn’t agree more. With the obesity epidemic posing tremendous health risks for American children—who are increasingly raised on processed foods—a growing number of nonprofit programs promoting healthy living are offering an antidote for kids who need guidance in making healthy eating choices. These programs take students on an experiential learning tour of the food production cycle, from the fields where produce is grown to the kitchens where they can learn to cook, eat fresh foods, and focus on the essential ingredients for healthy living.

Foundation for Wellness

The Edible Schoolyard, a nonprofit program launched in Berkeley, California, a decade ago by Alice Waters, famed chef of Chez Panisse restaurant, remains among the most influential efforts to introduce adolescents to better eating habits. As a component of this program, students from Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School tend the school’s garden, growing organic foods that they later prepare in the school’s kitchen. The initiative exposes children to fresh, seasonal foods, first as seeds and then, ultimately, as finished dishes presented at the table. To promote the habit of eating better foods, the organization encourages the middle school’s cafeteria to serve meals family-style, shared by students and adults dining together.

The program fosters active involvement in these programs, not passive participation. “We can change the foods served at schools, but unless we ingrain habits through educational programming, we will fail to ensure that students continue to eat better foods outside the school,” says Carina Wong, executive director of the Chez Panisse Foundation, which was also founded by Waters and supports the Edible Schoolyard.

Spreading the Word

In recent years, other organizations have adopted similar educational curricula. COPIA, a nonprofit cultural institution in Napa, California, features a curriculum “built around the concept of a collective table, an idea intended to connect kids to their food system again and to local agriculture,” says Colby Eierman, who as director of gardens tends to three and a half acres. In addition to COPIA’s garden-to-table program that now serves approximately 30 schools, COPIA helps students at Napa’s Vintage High School supply fresh foods to a local food bank. In this novel project, COPIA equips students with seeds, potted transplants, and expertise. Students cultivate a garden and donate seasonal produce to disadvantaged households in the community.

While many of the earliest garden-to-table projects are found on the West Coast, nonprofit organizations elsewhere are tailoring similar programs to the needs of young people. “We sought input from the local school, evaluated needs, and used that as a baseline before developing our programs,” says James Ford, executive director of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York State’s Westchester County. “On the Farm With Stone Barns,” the resulting program, now serves 40 school districts. After harvesting produce and collecting eggs on the farm, students transform the ingredients they gathered into a three-course meal under the tutelage of chef Dan Barber.

Reinventing the School Lunch

This year Stone Barns will host a summit meeting to create healthier menus for schools in response to a New York State mandate compelling them to devise wellness programs. This mandate finds echoes elsewhere. Last year, for instance, the Berkeley Board of Education teamed with the Chez Panisse Foundation to pioneer the School Lunch Initiative, an unprecedented, large-scale public-private partnership dedicated to improving lunches throughout the school system. The Chez Panisse Foundation is working with the Center for Ecoliteracy and the Berkeley Board of Education to create nutritious lunch menus incorporating fresh, seasonal produce for all 15 schools in the Berkeley school system.

In just one year, the Chez Panisse Foundation has successfully eliminated prepackaged and processed foods from school cafeterias. In addition to introducing seasonal, fresh vegetables to lunch menus, the organizers contracted local purveyors of fresh Mexican foods in recognition of the large Hispanic population within the school system. The organization also hopes to adopt many of the concepts applied in the Edible Schoolyard to this larger effort, including school gardens, family-style meals, and community training.

Funding Healthy Futures

The School Lunch Initiative seeks to draw more students into its program. Higher participation rates mean more students getting better food and daily nutrients that they often cannot get elsewhere. Greater participation also ensures more adequate reimbursement from the federal government. But government reimbursement rates are low and will never adequately cover program costs. The Initiative seeks to raise six million dollars over the next three years to improve cafeteria facilities, retrain staff, and develop kitchen gardens for all Berkeley public schools. “The challenge with these programs isn’t the audience, which has proven receptive to our efforts to promote interest in better foods,” says Stone Barns’ James Ford. “The challenge is creating the infrastructure, making it economically viable.” If these programs endure—or better, exert their influence in a greater number of schools—institutional food may be forever transformed and, with it, the lives and health of children.

Adapted from an article written by Thomas Asher for Community Foundations of America, Copyright 2006

Caroline Heine

Posted at 1:00 AM, Oct 09, 2008 in Education | Environment | Health | Poverty | Youth | Permalink | Comment