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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Strong

Educated. Why Food Education Is Critical in the Age of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Before COVID-19—before social distancing, before toilet paper panics, before communal mask making, restaurants closing, and our loved ones dying—I was advocating to change school food. In October 2018, I formed an grass-roots advocacy group called The NYC Healthy School Food Alliance, and I was working hard to convince New York City’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services to dump the highly-processed bag-to-oven foods they were serving 1.1 million children a day and to transition to more healthful scratch-cooked meals—real food cooked by real people. By March of this year, I had a scratch-cooking implementation bill before our City Council to move this goal along, too. (Its vote has been postponed for now due to COVID-19).

But that’s not all I was asking for. I was also pushing for a return to food, nutrition and culinary education in every grade. In the age of COVID-19, it’s become an even more important goal. A paper published this week in the journal JAMA about New York State’s largest health system found that of those who died of COVID-related complications, 57 percent had hypertension, 41 percent were obese and 34 percent had diabetes.

In her most recent story for the Times, the health and science journalist Jane Brody also spoke about the correlation between diet and disease, and more specifically this disease, COVID-19. In her piece, she interviewed Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, Dean of the Freidman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, who cited a recent national report describing poor diet as “now the leading cause of poor health in the U.S.” and the cause of more than half a million deaths per year.

“Only 12 percent of Americans are without high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or pre-diabetes,” Dr. Mozaffarian continued. “The statistics are horrifying, but unlike Covid they happened gradually enough that people just shrugged their shoulders. However, beyond age, these are the biggest risk factors for illness and death from Covid-19.”

In the state of New York, nearly one-third of children and youth are obese or overweight. In the state of New York, childhood obesity has tripled within the state over the past three decades. Within NYC, 40% of NYC public school students aged 6 to 12 are overweight or obese. These high rates increase health risks among growing children. Childhood obesity disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color. Indeed, children from food-insecure households are five times more likely to be obese than children from food-secure households.

Given how tightly high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and pre-diabetes are tied to COVID-19, and that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting populations already experiencing health and wealth disparities—mainly low income and communities of color—we would be wise to use this pandemic as a wake up call to not only bring back real scratch-cooked meals (the benefits of real food over processed foods are enormous), but also food and nutrition education.

The Benefits of Food Education

If knowledge is power then food and nutrition education gives children super powers. It’s easy to understand why: hands-on nutrition education gets children excited about eating healthy foods, it provides children with knowledge and skills for living healthy lives, and creates an environment where healthy choices are the easy choices. It also empowers children to advocate for better food in their schools, communities, and beyond. Through nutrition education, children gain experiences cooking, tasting, gardening, and learning about food to become healthy eaters and advocates for good food.

When you teach kids cooking skills and educate them on the way food grows (from the ground not a package!), and teach them what different fruits and vegetables can do for their bodies, children become energized and excited. I’ve seen it in my daughter’s class at PS 261 in Brooklyn. The kids were sitting at attention, excited and eager as they learned how to be “Food Detectives” during a free nutrition workshop run by the nonprofit Beechers Foundation. In two and a half hours, they learned how to read nutrition labels, understand ingredient lists, see through corporate marketing messages and cook a veggie chili from scratch.

Or take PS 244, a public school in Queens, which was transformed after a partnership with Fan4Kids, which teaches weekly nutrition and fitness education classes across the grades. Five years after signing on, it became the first all-vegetarian public school in New York City, a change spurred not by administration but by its student body. These stories are just two examples of the impact on classrooms across this city where food education is taught.

The research does not lie: practical, engaging, hands-on nutrition education will change life-long behaviors. “Nutrition education done well can decrease children’s BMI and weight gain, increase fruit and vegetable consumption, create positive attitudes toward fruits and vegetables, and may improve academic outcomes,” wrote the Tisch Center for Food Education & Policy in its recent brief The Importance of Nutrition Education in the 2015 Child Nutrition Reauthorization. “Nutrition education is an evidence-based, cost effective way to improve health outcomes and foster healthy eating habits for a lifetime.”

Nutrition education is truly a magic bullet for so many of the issues plaguing our children. According to a National Wellness Policy Study, well-implemented nutrition education can do a world of good for our children—helping them obtain healthy weights and BMIs, increase fruit and vegetable consumption, develop positive attitudes towards those foods and improve academic performance. It has also shown to have a positive effect in reducing the risk of child and adolescent rates of overweight and obesity while reducing the risk of undernutrition, iron deficiency and dental issues.

As with most sound policies, it’s helpful if they make financial sense. Good thing then that a modern-day home economics class does just that. If we invest in our children’s nutrition education now, the payoff down the road will be significant. How significant? Studies have shown that nutrition ed programs are cost-effective, saving $900 - $12,000 for each additional life-year resulting from obesity prevention and were predicted to save $8 million in direct medical costs associated with obesity when implemented at elementary school. In fact, nutrition education outcomes rank more favorably than other health sector interventions such as pharmaceuticals or taxes/bans on certain food items, according to a recent McKinsey Global Institute Report.

With Food Education, the Younger the Child the Better

Although it’s never too late to start educating our children about healthy eating habits and food, studies show that the earlier we start the more lasting and profound the changes will be. Reversal of health problems has been proven to be much harder and costly than their prevention in the early stages of life. That’s why the World Health Organization has reported that nutrition in early life is key for appropriate cognitive development and good health.

Looking at preschoolers’ eating habits in particular is quite compelling. A study in over 3000 US children showed that the majority of preschoolers (over 70%) were exceeding the recommended intake of saturated fats and were below the recommended intake of dietary fiber.

And yet at this age, good habits are relatively easy to develop. The USDA evaluation of the Eat Well Play Hard nutrition education program in preschoolers showed an increase in vegetable consumption and of 1% or fat-free milk intake in children. The Color Me Healthy nutrition education program showed an impressive increase of fruit and vegetable snacks intake in preschool children by 20% and 33%, respectively.

Teachers Want to Teach Food Education Too

Research published by the Tisch Food Center shows that nearly half the city’s schools lack access to external food and nutrition education programs. While schools do not offer food and nutrition education, teachers want it.

In March, the Tisch Food Center offered a special professional development online course for teachers,Teaching Food and Nutrition for All that provides just that — a framework for teaching kids about personal health, ecological sustainability and food justice, issues the nation is currently grappling with as supply chains are disrupted and millions of Americans are struggling to feed their families.

Within 72 hours of posting the course offering, all 500 ‘seats’ filled up, and 100 participants were waitlisted, suggesting a real desire and need for this type of training and professional development. What’s more, a 2018 School Health Policies and Practices Study survey showed that 72% of NY teachers wished they had training in nutrition and dietary behavior.

The Last Word—Food Equity

To be sure, food education must be supplemented by strong food equity policies — those that eliminate food deserts and that ensure healthy food is accessible and affordable in every community. After all, we can’t educate kids to make healthy choices and send them home to a neighborhood where all they can access is a bodega selling chips and candy. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s Growing Food Equity plan in New York City has the tools needed to increase access to healthy and affordable foods across our city.

To create change moving forward, our City Council must continue the Speaker's work and prioritize both scratch-cooked school meals and food and city-wide nutrition education. “One effective way to combat the current public health emergency is to prioritize preventable health issues like diet-related disease and invest in food education and policies that make healthy food more affordable, accessible and appealing—policies that have equity at their core,” said Julia McCarthy, the Food Ed Hub Director, Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy, a group of over 80 stakeholders in the food education space working to provide policies and programs to implement city-wide food education programming.

“This public health disaster has exposed inequalities in wealth and in health and the ugly underbelly of the American economy. Because of predatory food marketing and underinvestment in black and brown communities, people in these communities suffer disproportionately from diet-related diseases. Any policies we develop must not only improve the health of all New Yorkers, but be geared to make the greatest improvement on those communities most affected.”

If you'd like to share your voice and ask our elected officials to prioritize scratch-cooked meals and food education, please write to you City Council member today. Sample letters, research papers, and resources are available here.

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