The importance of food literacy

by Rose Sarner* (Guest Blogger)

“It’s one thing to provide people with food and it’s another to teach food literacy.” According to Fast Company, in 2021, “54 million Americans do not have access to healthy food,” and according to NPR, “80 percent of Americans fail to eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables.”  

Healthful food and its many benefits are not an everyday reality for many families in the world. Here in the United States, young kids, teens, and adults have little knowledge about the foods they are putting into their bodies, where the food is coming from, or how different foods affect their overall health. The programs that are in place that are supposed to “educate” Americans are not engaging, clear, or very informative and this failing has contributed to the current health and obesity crisis in the United States. Making health sustainable is a multifaceted issue that has many layers. Many individuals fall short of taking care of their health issues because they do not know how to make a life switch and sustain their progress. 

Our schools can play an important role in changing dietary habits by educating students on food literacy.  According to The Centers for Disease and Prevention, “US students receive less than 8 hours of required nutrition education each school year, which is far below the 40–50 hours that are needed to affect behavior change.” Additionally, educators are encouraged to teach nutritional education classes at schools; however, given the important role a person’s consumption of healthy foods has in preventing chronic diseases and supporting good health, ideally, educators would provide students with more hours of nutritional instruction. Research has proven a connection between healthy diets and one’s emotional well-being, and how emotions may influence eating habits (The Centers for Disease and Prevention). Due to the large number of required classes in many schools across the country, administrators and teachers should consider ways to integrate nutrition education into their existing curriculums.  

In the United States today, citizens have access to public education, road maintenance, law enforcement and more. However, one’s access to healthy produce and food is where health care should start. If people are living off of food from convenience stores and fast-food franchises that are filled with chemicals, it will ultimately lead to their risk of diseases in the future. Access to fresh produce is one factor that will aid citizens’ health, however, being educated about the food you are putting into your body is what will affect long term change. 

Unfortunately, nutrition education is not a priority in our country’s education system. Between 2000 and 2014 the percentage of schools providing required instruction on nutrition and dietary behaviors decreased from 84.6% to 74.1%.  Typically, wellness programs focus more on physical education rather than what is put inside our bodies.  While exercise and diet go hand in hand, a balanced diet is crucial to making a difference in our overall health.  After all, “we are what we eat!”  

Beginning in the 2022-23 school year, California will become the first state to implement statewide Universal Meals Programs in public schools. According to the California Department of Education, “California’s Universal Meals Program is designed to build on the foundations of the federal National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP).” In addition, on July 9, 2021, Assembly Bill 130 was passed that states there will be, “$150 million in one-time funding to support kitchen infrastructure and nutrition staff training.” 

California’s universal meal program is a much needed first step towards improving children’s eating habits; however, California schools still lack comprehensive health education and food literacy programs. A solution that California schools have begun implementing into elementary, middle, and high schools to help increase nutritional education are school gardens. School garden programs can increase students’ nutrition knowledge, willingness to try fruit and vegetables, and create positive attitudes about fruits and vegetables. Not only are students able to learn about how to maintain a garden; students are also able to learn firsthand how produce from these gardens can be incorporated into school meals. Additionally, the knowledge students gain from their experience maintaining a garden can aid in their academic success. 

School gardens provide students with a hands-on learning environment that allows students the chance to explore a real-world activity that lectures or worksheets cannot accomplish. Eva Ringstrom, director of impact at FoodCorps, says that “maintaining a school garden necessitates that nutrition lessons become a consistent, built-in part of students’ educational experience” (Harvard Graduate School of Education).  When children spend days, weeks, and months growing their own food and maintaining a proper garden, they feel accomplished and connected to it, which further encourages students to practice such habits in their own lives. 

According to a 2017 evaluation of FoodCorps conducted by the Tisch Center for Food, Education, and Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, “schools that provide frequent, high-quality opportunities for hands-on nutrition learning result in students to eat up to three times more fruits and vegetables at school lunch — regardless of whether or not that food was grown in the garden” (Harvard Graduate School of Education). Such effects extend outside of the school environment, a 2018 randomized control study by Nancy Wells at Cornell University found that “children whose schools provided regular school garden lessons had more access to low-fat vegetables and fruit at home than children without that curriculum (Harvard Graduate School of Education)

Moreover, during research conducted by the University of Georgia between 1990 and 2010, it has been shown that “garden-based learning had a positive impact on students’ grades, knowledge, attitudes, and behavior.” Beyond increasing students’ knowledge of nutrition education, school gardens allow opportunities for students to engage in real world applications of topics explored across disciplines —math, science, english, and history —. School gardens incorporate a hands-on approach and learning style which is essential in encouraging positive attitudes towards learning.

Education and a positive attitude towards nutrition is the start in changing the food crisis in America. To create a sustainable food system, people in California, and the rest of the country need to understand what they are eating and how to prepare and maintain a balanced diet.  Simply giving healthy food to students will only accomplish so much; we need to change the way families think about food. Teaching in our schools how to eat properly with healthy ingredients will make generational change in how Americans live their lives, as well as provide countless physical and health benefits.

*Rose Sarner is a junior at the Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles. She is passionate about nutrition, food access, and urban food policy.

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