Recently I and other land advocates from all over the country had the pleasure and honor of meeting with congress, senators and house or representatives from around the country to discuss and lobby for land laws that would affect urban agriculture, community gardens and the usage of green open spaces. I was there representing my beloved Brooklyn, NY and was asked to share the connections I've witnessed in education between environment, access and health. The links between the three are incredibly strong and profound.
My Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood has managed to find itself with many sweet gardens and parks. Each one a beautiful oasis amongst the harsh concrete. For me, they often feel like escape hatches down into a rabbit hole of goodness, light and fun!! These places often serve as outdoor classrooms for the school community giving children a chance to have an intimate hands on experience with nature. I believe children and young people that are exposed to nature often, grow up to become healthy well rounded individuals who care about themselves and the world around them.
The culture of the school our children attend play a huge role in the way their minds and bodies develop. The information and items they are exposed to plant seeds and give birth to ideas, ways of being and understanding. Boundaries and guidelines created withing a school plays a definitive role in determining each students behavior, engagement and success. Schools that make nutrition education and healthy eating a priority have students that fare better health-wise, academically and socially. It's not just a site for academic learning but a place to develop strong ideas about health, community and culture.
Two words that constantly come up to describe my area and surrounding spaces, are "food desert." I make a conscious effort to reject this term not just because I feel it's inaccurate, but because it places my community in a space of lack and defeat. The visual and claim is that there is no food in sight, when in actuality there is plenty, the issue is that the choices are extremely poor. Dubbing it a fast food swamp makes more sense in that like most urban environments there is a fast food and cheap Chinese food on every block. All fried and salty everything!!
Throw in corner bodegas with their potato chips, bagels, egg and cheese or submarine sandwiches and you are covered in regards to your sugars, trans fats and dead empty calories. I heard the term 'food apartheid' from a comrade and could immediately relate to the concept of finding produce that is fresh and organic but also outrageously expensive. Food apartheid is organic kale at $2.49 a pound in one neighborhood and $4.99 a pound in mine, or the difference in being able to find a large variety of free range, hormone-free organic brown eggs, milk and cheese in one area and finding only commercial GMOs in another. Our very dysfunctional food system makes it incredibly challenging to provide our families with what is needed for their best well-being. One would hope that in this we could look to our schools as a source of support in combating the inequalities we face in this effort. It is a fair expectation to at least have schools be a space that encourages healthy eating habits. It surprises me that nutrition education is not a part of everyday curriculum from the beginning. Counteracting the negative and constant exposure to junk food that our children get in media and in their environment is necessary work. Companies purposely peddle their poison to children and teens, and it's up to us as the adults and caretakers of their lives to provide information on how to make mindful choices. School need not be a place where they are tempted by trash that destroys their growing bodies. The last thing needed in schools are vending machines filled with cheap toxic substance that cause damage to their precious bodies. Candy sold for fundraising purposes or given as a reward for good behavior can assist in creating an unhealthy attachment to it. School is more than just a place where children develop academically but a place that should foster positive social engagement and encourage healthy living.
How ironic that in the middle of teaching high school students the effect that sugar has on the body, In walks one of my students with a HUGE box of candy. Turns out she was selling it to raise money for her cheerleading squad. Even though my students were being armed with the knowledge on why to say no, it was still too tempting for them to pass up and it was a way for them to support their friend. It was a lose-lose situation. There have to be other ways for schools to raise money that don't involve selling candy!What with all we know about the dangers of junk food its disappointing that these items are sold on school grounds.
Here are some random facts about junk food ingredients to consider.
Many artificially colored foods contain benzene, which is a chemical that causes damage to the nerves and brain.
Items with sugar as the main ingredient mean that all nutritional value has been stripped away leaving a useless substance that rushes through the stomach and blood.
Although science has proven that there is no direct link between sugar and hyperactivity, research shows that food coloring, preservatives and caffeine (the main ingredients in soda and candy) play a huge part in triggering irritability, lack of focus, & hyperactivity in children.
Mono sodium glutamate (a standard ingredient in most flavored chips and popcorn snacks) intolerance causes headaches, rapid heart rate, anxiety, nausea and even at times vomiting. This is also often listed as "natural flavor" or simply MSG.
Corn syrup turns into alcohol in the digestive system, and does damage to the pancreas.
Corn starch often found in bagged baked goods, is made from washing corn in caustic soda and sulphur dioxide gas. It clogs the veins and arteries.
These are just a few example of the poisons often found on school grounds disguised as food.
The only place that soda and junk food belongs in on school grounds is a science classroom as they make perfect items for experimentation, or maybe an art class as candy makes an easy, colorful and malleable substance for collage and sculpting.
Nutrition education is a priority and should be taught with the same level of importance as any other subject. Children and teens must be encouraged to read the labels of what they eat and recognize toxic foods. Discussion on the importance of eating fresh and raw fruits and vegetables and the damage that eating poorly does to the body should be a regular part of a students school day. School is where children spend the largest majority of their time, it needs to be an environment that supports what is best for them. Outside of removing the vending machines and surplus of junk food available it's also important to share with them the reasons why so that when they are out in the world and confronted with making choices about what to eat they are armed and ready. Arming our children with the knowledge on how to be better eaters, and setting an example by removing junk food from their immediate environment will shift the dynamic that is being currently displayed. Let them be aware of how their diet is intrinsically linked to every single aspect of their lives, let them feel in charge and ready to face all that is coming their way. It's time to empower our children towards not just wellness and good health but WHOLE living. These are traits and lessons that will stay with them and carry over into adulthood. As adults we have a responsibility to model good behavior, work to provide them with the best options out there and also teach them healthy eating habits. There is a slow trend taking place in empowering children by having them learn about nutrition, recognize the options and in some cases even grown their own food. Let's keep it going!! By planting these very important seeds of self care early in our young people, we will witness them grow well and reap the benefit for lifetimes.
Share your thoughts about why children deserve healthy snack options in schools with USDA here.