Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Nutrition Debate #133: The Edible Schoolyard (ESY)

“…and the abandoned school cafeteria became the kitchen classroom.” Wow! That’s transformative. I read this in a history of the Edible Schoolyard Project at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California. Alice Waters, the legendary doyenne of California Cuisine, was the impetus behind ESY in 1995 and now supports it through her Chez Panisse Foundation. “California Cuisine is a style of cuisine marked by an interest in fusion cuisine (integrating disparate cooking styles and ingredients) and in the use of freshly prepared local ingredients,” according to Wikipedia. New American Cuisine derives from California Cuisine. Alice Waters’ influence the world over on cooking with fresh, local ingredients is undeniable. Would that how we teach our children about food everywhere were equally transformative.

I was directed to this site, and another, Edible Schoolyard New Orleans (ESYNOLA), by Randy Fertel, a neighbor. As co-chair of the ESYNOLA Task Force, Randy told me, with justifiable pride, that in just the last 7 years New Orleans has established an offshoot of ESY in 5 FirstLine public open-enrollment charter schools. In his words, paraphrasing, “…when children are engaged in the growing, harvesting, and preparing of food, they are far more likely to eat it.” According to their website,Edible Schoolyard New Orleans changes the way children eat, learn, and live...” “Our mission is to improve the long-term well being of our students, families, and school community by integrating hands-on organic gardening and seasonal cooking into the school curriculum, culture, and cafeteria programs.” What a great idea!

It’s hard for me to imagine an “abandoned school cafeteria” in a fully functioning Middle School (grades 7, 8 and 9), especially in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood. I have never been a parent, so my exposure to the policies and politics of school lunch programs is nil, but I do read the paper and listen to and watch the news. On the local level, the issues revolve around whether flavored milk should be banned from the cafeteria. Eight ounces of white milk contains 14 grams of natural sugar or lactose; fat-free chocolate milk has six grams of added sugar for a total of 20 grams, while fat-free strawberry milk has a total of 27 grams — the same as eight ounces of Coca-Cola. Flavored milk is like candy. Others argue that vending machines should be banned altogether, or just allowed if they are limited to “healthy” snack foods, defined as low in saturated (solid) fats like butter and made with just enough partially hydrogenated polyunsaturated vegetable oils to escape having to be labeled as containing dangerous trans fats.

At the Federal level, the U.S. Government has recently reentered the fray with the latest version of the USDA’s 167 page National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program. Even our First Lady, Michelle Obama, is out “on the stump” in support of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. Here’s an easier to read overview of school lunch and breakfast programs.

More fresh fruits and vegetables and less added sugar are great goals. The most worrisome part of the new school lunch guidelines is the emphasis on reduced saturated fat. Regardless of what you think about saturated fat in the adult diet, children are rapidly growing and developing brain tissue. The other functions of saturated fat (from The Skinny of Fats):

·         Cell Membrane Function – 50 percent of the fats in cell membranes must be saturated for the cells to function properly.

·         Lung Function – The lungs cannot function without saturated fats, which explains why children fed butter and whole milk have much less asthma than children fed margarine and low-fat milk.

·         Kidney Function – The kidneys operate through a process that requires saturated fat.

·         Brain and Nervous System – The normal brain is especially rich in saturated fat (and also cholesterol).

·         Immune System – Saturated fats are needed for healthy immune function.

·         Protection against Infection – Some kinds of saturated fats (found in coconut oil and butter) help fight pathogenic bacteria, viruses and parasites. Children fed skim milk suffer from infection five times more frequently than children fed whole milk.

·         Heart Function – Saturated fats are the preferred food for the heart. Children on low-fat diets actually develop blood markers indicating proneness to heart disease.

·         Vitamin Carriers – Saturated animal fats serve as unique sources of important nutrients such as vitamins A and D, and CLA.

So, the Edible Schoolyard is a breath of fresh air. I don’t care that there is no mention of animal products in any of the website offerings, except for eggs in the ESY Berkeley program. There are, after all, limitations to what you can do on a one acre plot of ground adjacent to a classroom building. And besides, if the Ruth’s Chris Steak House guy (Fertel) can get behind a program like this, he must have made a similar assessment about the program: “The mission of the Edible Schoolyard Berkeley is to teach essential life skills and support academic learning through hands-on classes in a one-acre organic garden and kitchen classroom. The Edible Schoolyard curriculum is fully integrated into the school day and teaches students how their choices about food affect their health, the environment, and their communities.” I like it.
What are you doing about nutrition in your school’s lunch program? Or what would you do if the government stayed out of what foods you could serve/not serve in your school instead of pimping for the agribusiness lobby in Washington DC?

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