Two City Schools Try Food For Life

Two City Schools Try Food For Life

A unique program is being piloted at two Baltimore area K-8 schools – Hampstead Hill Academy and the Stadium School. Food for Life, (a program of Fusion Partnerships) aims to study and to promote sensory-based food and nutrition education as a strategy to improve the health, academic performance, and behavior of children and their families. Food and nutrition are often overlooked aspects of social justice. Access to healthy, reasonably priced food is not available in many poor communities. Most neighborhood stores carry only processed or fast food, which compromises the health of many residents. The National School Lunch program receives free food from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), however despite healthy alternatives in those foods, many school systems opt to use only processed and prepared foods. Also, due to tight budgets, many kitchens are eliminated in urban school districts and food personnel are often the lowest paid employees on school staff. This has resulted in unhealthy, over processed food being served to our children every day. Childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes are on the rise and affect poor communities more significantly. According to a recent study by University of Wisconsin researchers, more than a third of disadvantaged 3-year-olds in Baltimore and other major U.S. cities are overweight or obese. Latina/o children are at the highest risk, with 45 percent either overweight or obese. Nutrients play a unique role in terms of mind/body health, academic performance, and behavior, yet very few schools, researchers, and policy makers have addressed these issues in an integrated manner. From a sociological, physical, and psychological perspective, obesity can be linked in varying degrees, to poor nutrition. The “Food is Elementary” curriculum teaches students about food and nutrition through hands-on, multicultural, sensory experiences in which they prepare and taste a variety of healthful foods. Parents, food service personnel, and community groups are involved in this study designed to promote positive behavior change. The curriculum was developed by Dr. Antonia Demas from the Food Studies Institute. Her research and implementation of this curriculum has taken place throughout the United States. Each school has a food educator who teaches the curriculum as part of the school day. At Hampstead Hill Academy, students also hold monthly community dinners in which they prepare food for their families and neighbors They have built and maintain a school garden, helped to paint a food based mural in the cafeteria, and started an after school culinary club. The Stadium School also has a school garden and will be instituting the culinary club and community dinners in spring 2007. This project has the potential to save school lunch programs money with the creative introduction of the available USDA commodity foods to the classroom setting. The overall perception is that students will not eat the healthier foods, however as one of our students said: “After I tried the food, I found that just because it looks nasty, it is really very good! I didn’t like all of it but I was glad that I tried it. My body felt wonderful after eating all that healthy food.” (Elizabeth S., 4th grade). Food service personnel are also included in this program. Food for Life is working to elevate the status of the cafeteria worker and help them to become an advocate for healthier food being served in the cafeteria. With additional funding, Food for Life would hope to give stipends to cafeteria workers for additional training and professional development. Healthier nutrition for families is another goal. Recipes are sent home with students so that they can prepare meals for their families. As funding permits, stipends are provided for parents to assist in the classroom. This program has a positive impact on parents as well – “My experience in this class was wonderful. I learned how to eat healthier. I have learned information about other cultures and the food they eat. I learned about where vitamins go and the difference between foods. Now I eat healthier food and my body feels like it has more energy.” (Cindy P, parent helper) Food for Life received its initial funding from foundations and food donations from Whole Foods. Now it faces the challenge of finding the additional funding and support to keep the project going, and integrate it into the regular school lunch program in Baltimore City Public Schools. Hampstead Hill Academy serves approximately 450 students in Pre-K through eighth grade, 83% of whom are eligible for the Federal Free and Reduced lunch program. While healthier school lunches are a primary goal, Principal Matthew Hornbeck credits Food for Life with “educational enrichment.” As he explains it, “The program builds on what our students learn in science, math, social studies, language arts, music and art.” Now the challenge is to convince the school system how important good nutrition is on academic performance and achievement so this type of program can be implemented city-wide.