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Why Isn’t Nutrition Education a Priority in Public Schools?

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A recent study from Columbia University’s Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education, and Policy found that more than half of NYC public schools bring in external programs like nonprofits to educate kids about food and nutrition. The report on nutrition programs and education in NYC schools looked at which programs were being used to teach kids about food. And then looking at which schools had access to those programs.

“Through nutrition education, students have exciting and engaging experiences gardening, cooking, and critically thinking about our food supply,” wrote Tisch Food Center director Pamela Koch. “Students gain knowledge and skills to make food choices that promote health, ecological sustainability, and social justice. They gain confidence to navigate our challenging food environments and persuasive marketing of unhealthy foods.”

“All NYC students, no matter their age, borough, or background, deserve to have access to great nutrition education,” added Koch.

The report found that 56 percent of the 1,840 public schools in NYC use external programs, mainly run by nonprofits, to educate students about food and nutrition. 815 schools in the city, or 44 percent, do not have any nutritional education programs at all.

“The NYC school district is massive, so it’s understandable that there are so many programs working to bring these experiences to kids, but it begs the question: who are they reaching and how can we ensure that all kids have access to these opportunities?” said Tisch Food Center deputy director Clair Uno.

School has always been about more than just learning traditional subjects like math or science – many public schools teach subjects like technology or personal finance to help students develop a more well-rounded education that’s relevant to their lives.

And nutritional education is more relevant than ever. The number of children and adolescents who are considered obese has more than tripled since the 1970s, according to data from the CDC. Data from 2015 to 2016 found almost 1 in 5 Americans between 6 and 19 were obese.

Beyond obesity, Americans’ eating habits often don’t meet the standards for a healthy diet. According to the CDC, most children don’t meet the recommended intake of fruits and vegetables. Sugary beverages reportedly account for 10 percent of U.S. children’s caloric intake. Empty calories from sugars and fats account for about 40 percent of American kids’ daily calories on average.

Shutterstock

Obviously, finding time to talk about healthy eating in an already packed school day is a hurdle for nutrition education in schools. It’s also unreasonable to ask for overworked, underpaid public school teachers who may not have formal nutrition education training to teach kids about healthy food habits.

So the compromise that many schools have found is with programs like New York’s Veggiecation, which uses cooking classes and hands-on demonstrations to introduce kids to new vegetables and promote healthy eating. But while nonprofit nutrition education programs do a lot to help educate NYC’s public school students about food, it’s not the same as having regularly scheduled nutrition education integrated into schools’ curriculums – and many nonprofit programs simply don’t have the resources to reach every school.

The report also found that schools, where black and Latino students made up 80 or more percent of the student population, had less access to nutrition education programs than NYC public schools overall.

The good news is that access to nutrition programs from external programs is increasing. In Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens, the rate of elementary schools with at least one nutrition program increased by 82 percent since 2012.

In 2013, a study found that nutrition programs could lead to healthier choices by those receiving SNAP benefits.

The SNAP Education and Evolution Study looked at the effects of nutrition education programs on elementary school children and seniors who received SNAP benefits and found that those who had received education chose fresh fruits and vegetables more often.

In its report, the Tisch Center recommended allocating more funding and support for teachers to train in nutrition education. As well as dedicating space for nutrition education programs in schools and connecting classroom lessons to lessons from nutrition education programs.

The Tisch Center has also created a searchable database of nutrition education programs in NYC to help schools that want to incorporate more food education into their school with external programs.

“We hope that this report, and the accompanying online database of Nutrition Education Programs in NYC Schools, can pave the way for all NYC students to get more great nutrition education,” wrote Koch.

Lead Image Source: Shutterstock

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