Whenever we see another fast-food restaurant open, or pause to contemplate what still passes as “food” at the supermarket, or even ask our children what they ate for lunch at school, it’s easy to get discouraged by the way Americans continue to eat. But behind the scenes—quietly, at times—a legion of programs and classes are showing America’s youth a different way to look at food than what they see in commercials, on store shelves, or even in their lunch lines at school.
“Whenever kids are able to take ownership over something like cooking the food themselves, it creates a much stronger connection,” says Sarah Elliott, farm-to-school program manager at REAP Food Group in Madison, WI.
Most experts agree that food policy from the top means very little if the habits of our nation’s young people aren’t being shaped day by day. Numerous studies have shown that the relationships children build with food at an early age will often shape the way they approach eating and food later in life. For instance, studies have found that children need to try a food 8-12 times before they change a negative reaction to it. And yet too many parents fill their “picky” children’s bellies with cheap, processed, and ultimately unhealthy foods throughout the day.
Here’s the most important (and most obvious) fact nutritionists want us to remember: Kids’ food preferences and knowledge about what and how they eat is heavily influenced by parents, teachers, childcare professionals and other adults around them. This is why policy experts say the explosion in recent years of healthy food programs for kids may be the single most promising means for transforming our food system as a whole.
“Working on kids is the highest priority,” says Dr. Hugh Joseph, who teaches about food policy and nutrition at the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. “It is not a panacea, because, obviously, parents do the shopping and food prep at home. But kids are pretty good at influencing their parents—that is why advertising to kids is so effective.”
Joseph points to the success of farm-to-school programs nationally—which have gone from being unknown a decade ago to having a presence in thousands of schools nationwide—but he emphasizes that adding a salad bar to the lunch line will not, by itself, create a lasting impression on kids. Healthier school meals, while vital, must be accompanied by quality teaching about nutrition and food preparation. In many cases, these classes are coming from outside the school.
Take, for example, Madison’s REAP Food Group: Its successful Chef in the Classroom initiative brings area chefs into middle and high schools to cook local, healthy foods with the kids. Or eastern Massachusetts’ Kids Cooking Green, which puts third- through fifth-graders in four- or five-week afterschool cooking classes. In addition to food preparation, the kids learn about buying locally, visit a farmers market, and cook and serve a celebratory dinner for their families at the conclusion of the class.
Programs like these work. In a 2007 analysis of the nationwide Cooking Matters program (which provides cooking instruction to children and adults), the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that the program’s courses “improved participants’ food choices, eating habits, cooking skills and food budgeting and shopping practices in the short and longer terms.”
Still, there are too few of these kid-geared programs, says Joseph, mainly because they aren’t important enough to community leaders and lawmakers.
“Right now, it is nowhere near the priority it should be, nor is the funding adequate from local, state and federal sources,” Joseph says. “But it is much better than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago.”
Which kids’ cooking programs are making a difference in your community?
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