Over the last year, business and school closures have led to families worrying about their children having access to nourishing meals. As two professionals who work to keep kids healthy and fed, we see a clear, bipartisan opportunity to support children as they return to school in the fall: the Food and Nutrition Education in Schools Act.
Despite the hardships of the past year, it’s been inspiring to see the crucial role that the Arkansas school nutrition community has played in ensuring access to healthy food for our kids. Schools have served brown-bag lunches and delivered meals since the start of the pandemic. In some cases, schools served three meals a day to students and their families.
If you ask a school nutrition leader how they did it, you might hear them talk about their amazing staff, community, and dedication to kids. They may also mention the support of their school’s food educators, such as FoodCorps service members, who teach kids about healthy food in hands-on lessons in classrooms and school gardens. These educators jumped in to help by distributing meals, harvesting school gardens to include fresh produce to give to families–and ensuring students had access to safe, outdoor education.
Food and nutrition education has a direct influence on the lives and well-being of students. An independent Columbia Teachers College study found that kids who receive more hands-on food education were eating up to three times as many fruits and veggies as kids who received less. Through food education, students learn to enjoy vegetables, setting them up for good health for a lifetime. Yet, these subjects are not considered to be a high priority in critical child health policy conversations in Little Rock or Washington.
In Arkansas, where one in five children face hunger, we are lucky to have a legislative champion in Sen. John Boozman, who is an advocate for programs to address this pervasive issue and has seen food education in action during local school visits.
The Food and Nutrition Education in Schools Act prioritizes schools with high rates of free or reduced-priced meals, a clear indicator of community need. Inspired by the FoodCorps model, this bipartisan bill would provide these schools with funding to hire food educators.
The Food and Nutrition Education in Schools Act must be included in this year’s Child Nutrition Reauthorization, currently pending in the Senate Agriculture Committee where Senator Boozman serves as ranking member.
Food and nutrition education is so much more than the pyramid chart that many of us grew up with. Here in Springdale, we taught a lesson called “Don’t Yuck My Yum.” Kids brought in foods that had a cultural meaning to them–one kid brought in empanadas, another souvlaki– and all of us tasted the foods. The idea was to celebrate the foods that kids eat at home.
All students may not have equal opportunities, but through these lessons, we can build equal understanding and mutual respect for one another. Thanks to the generous support of Child Nutrition Director Gena Smith, the Springdale School District hosts four FoodCorps service members in eight schools, who teach lessons like this one. In the state, we have nine service members who teach more than 6,000 Arkansas kids. Imagine what we could do with more of these educators!
Lastly, food educators can strengthen the relationships between local farmers and schools. At Springdale, food educators support farm-to-school efforts by teaching kids about a different Arkansas-grown food item each month, through participating in a Harvest of the Month program.
Food education in schools is foundational as we come back to school in the fall. Not only does teaching healthy habits prepare students for success, it also protects them for life by providing them with the tools to nourish and care for themselves and their families. Students receive art, music, and gym classes, and we urge our legislators to recognize the importance of providing food education to all kids.
We urge federal legislators to consider co-sponsoring this critical legislation, and to make a plan to visit schools here in Arkansas to see how those responsible for food education can benefit students, and you.
Mary Miller is the Coordinated School Health Coordinator for Springdale Public Schools; Destiny Schlinker is the Arkansas Program Associate Director of FoodCorps.