Finally, some scientific support for what those of us who have watched kids pick spinach, cook kale, and chew on chard have known all along: Children who grow their own food (and prepare and eat it too) make healthier food choices.
For the past five years I've been a volunteer in the kitchen at the Edible Schoolyard, the much-admired organic garden and kitchen program founded by Alice Waters at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California. I've also taught afterschool cooking classes to elementary-age kids (and their parents) in Berkeley public schools.
Over the years I've witnessed many wonderful things take place in cooking classrooms and out in the field when children are exposed to an edible education. A child discovers kiwi fruit. A student asks for sprouts at the farmers' market. Leafy greens are dished up and chowed down with gusto.
But until now, school cooking and gardening advocates haven't had hard data to back up this soft science. A report released today reveals a victory for the vegetables (particularly those of the leafy green variety). "We realized we needed to present numbers and facts to support what is so clear to us from our experience working in the Edible Schoolyard and through the transformation of school lunch in Berkeley," Waters says. "We knew validation of the work was important in order to reach a wider public. This is one of our first steps in reaching new audiences—particularly the scientific and academic community—and of course we hope it has implications for public policy."
From 2006 to 2009, researchers at the University of California tracked the eating behaviors of 238 children as they moved from fourth grade into middle school in the Berkeley Unified School District. By analyzing food diaries, questionnaires, and other data, they wanted to tease out whether the district's School Lunch Initiative (SLI), co-created by the Chez Panisse Foundation in 2004, had an impact on the way kids eat and think about food. (The Chez Panisse Foundation, begun by Waters, the queen of local/sustainable cuisine, also funds the Edible Schoolyard.)
Investigators crunched numbers on students from elementary and middle schools that had cooking and gardening integrated into their classroom lessons along with improvements in school food and the dining environment (they referred to these schools as "highly developed" SLI programs) and compared these figures with those from schools who didn't integrate cooking and gardening into English, history, science, and math courses (known as "lesser developed" SLI schools).
Among the key findings of the research, which was commissioned by the Chez Panisse Foundation and is one of the first such studies to evaluate an integrated approach to food education:
• Increased nutritional knowledge among 4th and 7th graders who were fed a steady stream of gardening and cooking curriculum.
• Higher fruit and vegetable consumption among elementary-age students in schools with more SLI components than in students at schools with less-developed SLI offerings, including a preference for leafy greens like kale, spinach, and chard.
• Vegetable intake was almost one serving per day greater in the schools with a beefed-up food curriculum, and combined fruit and vegetable consumption increased by 1.5 servings. About 80 percent of this increase came from in-season produce. In comparison, researchers found a nearly quarter-serving drop in produce intake among other students.
• More positive attitudes about the taste and health value of school lunch in students in more highly developed SLI programs than those in lesser-developed SLI schools.
• Small increases in produce consumption occurred among middle-schoolers with higher exposure to nutrition education as opposed to a drop in fruit and vegetable intake by about one serving a day among students in the other group.
• There were no detectable differences in academic test scores or body mass index based on differences in SLI exposure.
Yes, we're spoiled here in Berkeley. The Berkeley Unified School District's cooking and gardening programs, along with its school lunch, are considered among the best in the nation, and, it's true, we live in a region where an amazing abundance of produce is available pretty much year-round. But as I know from my own experience in public schools, many children here still face problems accessing healthy foods in their homes, and our student body is not immune to hunger, obesity, and lifestyle diseases such as diabetes.
With the exception of the Edible Schoolyard, school gardens and kitchen classes in Berkeley schools are funded by the Network for a Healthy California, a consortium of local, state, and national organizations working to improve the health of low-income families through increased fruit and vegetable consumption and physical activity. Two years before this study was started, Waters recruited chef Ann Cooper (a.k.a. the Renegade Lunch Lady) to revamp what was on the school lunch menus in Berkeley, which then reflected typical school-lunch fare. As Director of Nutrition Services, Cooper banned processed foods and started making everything from scratch. She sought local produce, dairy, and bread, and, as much as possible, organic foods, too.
MORE ON THE EDIBLE SCHOOLYARD:
Caitlin Flanagan: Cultivating Failure
Corby Kummer: Gardeners Strike Back
Waters, Cooper (who has since moved on to overhaul school lunch in Boulder, Colorado), and their supporters have always maintained that in their experience, kids who are offered lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains in the cafeteria eat it. "With this study," Cooper says, "we can finally prove that what we feed kids and what we teach them about food really does make a difference." She notes that the timing of the report is significant, with Congress set to vote on child nutrition legislation any day now.
Cooper has other reasons to crow. In a related, smaller sub-study noted in today's report, students at elementary schools who ate school lunch consumed three times as many vegetables as students who brought lunch from home. That's the kind of news that makes folks like Jamie Oliver of "Food Revolution" fame—not to mention brown-bagging parents—pay attention.
School lunch reformers face their skeptics—writer Caitlin Flanagan, for one, in this very magazine. And even school lunch advocates such as reporter Ed Bruske (a.k.a. The Slow Cook), embedded in the Berkeley school district's central kitchen earlier this year, noted that when he worked the lunch line vegetables were a hard sell, despite the best efforts of the kitchen staff.
Some naysayers will sniff that the study presents no evidence of any detectable difference in certain key indicators—like academic test scores or body weight—in children with more exposure to edible instruction. But as UC-Berkeley researcher Suzanne Rauzon, lead author on the SLI report, observes, such findings were outside the purview of this report and would require a larger student sample followed for a greater period of time to determine any correlation between the two.
For now, Rauzon finds the results encouraging and, she says, clear evidence that a program like the School Lunch Initiative is an effective tool in reinforcing a wide variety of healthy eating behaviors among the young. Here's to hoping that administrators in other school districts—not to mention our elected officials in Washington—eat this stuff up.