Like thousands of other schools across the nation, Cabrillo Middle School opened its doors last week. The return to school presents challenges, including busier schedules. But it also provides an opportunity to rethink food choices and particularly, school lunches.
Here in Ventura, we live in the best of worlds. Our school district has farm-fresh salad bars in each of its seventeen schools. In addition, we live in an area that produces fruits and vegetables year round. Simply drive a couple of miles from mid-town Ventura, and you're at a farmer's stand; we also have two great farmers markets, one during the week. In addition, we have several excellent Community Supported/Sustained Agricultural (CSA) options.
My daughter, Natalie, has always liked to take her lunch to school. Last year, she expressed concern about the amount of trash generated in the typical school lunch. Together, we found plastic bento boxes on line, and have happily used those. This year, Natalie's work with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation has provided a different focus for her: ways to create appealing, satisfying and healthful lunches. In the past, Natalie has been mostly content to let me pack her lunch; now, she wants to be intimately involved in the process. The seemingly simple act of lunch-making has provided daily opportunities to discuss nutrition, menu-planning, decision-making and a whole range of social justice issues around food.
Some wonderful items made their way into Natalie's lunchbox last week. Using produce from our CSA box, she crafted delicate cucumber sandwiches for the first day back at school. They were so wonderful that as an encore, she made them for us to have as a snack with a cup of tea later that day. It was a treat to have my child, now taller than me, take such care to create something healthy and delicious for us to eat together.
I'm not the only one with school lunches on my mind. In mid-September, I'll be traveling to Portland, Oregon to participate in a gathering of other professionals from the western United States who are also concerned about school lunches. Hosted by EcoTrust, this Assembly will focus on making positive changes in the school food environment. Not just for our own children, but for the children in the communities in which we live.
Today's world is full of extremes. There is an epidemic of childhood obesity in our country that has long-term consequences for our health system and our economy. Too much food in some cases, and not the right kinds of food. (My last blog entry discusses some issues relating to childhood obesity in Los Angeles County).
In contrast, today's Los Angeles Times features an article about India's crisis: childhood malnutrition. According to the article, half of that nation's youngest children are malnourished, with entirely inadequate access to a proper amount and - in many cases - the proper kinds of food. The figures in the article - and the implications for all of us - are staggering. In some ways, the situation seems hopeless. There is simply not the collective will to solve these problems.
As I plan a week's lunches with my daughter, we're faced with many decisions about what to eat. We have the luxury to be able to make choices, hopefully, most of them responsible.
And it makes me realize that one of the ways to solve the large, seemingly intractable problems that plague our world is to take small and deliberate actions to improve the territory in our immediate vicinity. Pack a nutritious meal for the children in your care. Become more informed about childhood nutrition and food policy (a great blog on this topic, Caroline's Lunchbox, is written by Dr. Betty Izumi). If you want mostly healthy snack ideas from a 12 year old, visit http://natalies12.wordpress.com/).
In your community, lobby for a healthier food environment in schools and in youth organizations. If it's your turn to bring a snack, skip the cupcakes and provide fruit. At the national level, write your political leaders and request more funding for fruits and vegetables in federally-supported nutrition programs. And request more aid to help other nations in food crisis...because the food security of all children is of vital importance to our collective future as citizens of the world.
And consider being really upstream in your thinking by producing some of what you eat. Participate in a gardening effort, whether at home, at a local school or someplace in the community. While your gardening efforts may seem small and insignificant, they may provide something miraculous for a child's lunchbox, and in the process, may also feed your soul.
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."
If we're going to make real inroads into childhood obesity, and if we're really going to engage a new generation of gardeners, we need youth on board. The best way to influence youth is through the voices of other youth. They have shared experiences and often, similar perspectives.
This quick post encourages you to visit two youth-authored blogs about healthy lifestyle, written by members of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. One is written by a twelve year old; the other is written by a seventeen year old high school senior. Full disclosure: the twelve year old is mine, and I like hearing her ideas.
Please visit "The 12 Year Old's Guide 2 Ending Childhood Obesity"and "Highway to a Healthier Generation". The youth who are writing these blogs are tracking the responses and comments. What they have to say is worthwhile. You'll read about various topics, including childhood obesity, heart disease, school lunches, celebrity chefs, etc. You'll find tips, ideas and links.
Mostly, though, you'll have an opportunity to learn what youth are saying, understand what's important to them, and experience authentic new voices. They are the leaders of tomorrow. Or maybe today?
"A Garden For Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."
Reaching youth with a healthy lifestyle message is vital. A healthy lifestyle incorporates proper eating, physical activity AND gardening. Educating youth about a healthy lifestyle is especially critical today: nearly one in three U.S. youth are obese. Using youth to reach youth with the healthy lifestyle message is essential to its success. Thankfully, there is an organization that is trying to do this in a big way.
Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Kansas City, Missouri with my daughter, Natalie, so that she could participate in a special meeting. The opportunity was offered by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which is a collaboration between the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association. The Alliance has recently selected twenty youth between the ages of 8 and 17 to serve as its youth advisory board, and to act as spokespersons for the issue of childhood obesity. The youth are from all across the nation, and have diverse interests, talents, life stories and goals. But they share one ambition: to help all youth lead a healthier lifestyle. They gathered in nearly the literal center of the nation - Kansas City, Missouri - to tackle one of the most serious issues facing youth: obesity.*
When we arrived in Kansas City after a long day of travel, we didn't know what to expect. We went down to the pool to meet the youth and their parents. Within minutes, the kids were friends. Since they've left Kansas City, they have been in constant contact via email, text messaging, phone and Facebook, sharing ideas, resources and energy. Each is commited to making a difference in their community. Together, they hope to make a difference nationally. After meeting them, I believe they will. They are already spreading out, like so many seeds tossed in the wind. Some are interviewing with newspapers. Some, like my daughter, have started blogging about healthy lifestyle issues. Others are speaking in public venues, getting youth to sign healthy lifestyle pledge cards, hosting community events to raise awareness of the issue...they are using their passion and creativity to reverse the tide of childhood obesity that threatens to overwhelm our nation's health system.
Their goals are ambitious: to stop the climb in childhood obesity by 2010, and to reverse the trend by 2015. Laudable goals. Amazing youth. I will watch their efforts with great anticipation. You can, too, by visiting the Alliance's website.
So what's the gardening link? Gardening provides a way to improve diet and is a form of healthy exercise. It's a great kid-friendly activity, too. Gardening is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle. Is it part of yours?
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."
* For all you geography wonks, the actual geographic center of the contiguous (lower) 48 states is about four miles west of Lebanon, Kansas, at 98°35' West 39°50' North. That's about 458 miles from Kansas City, MO. Pretty close to center in a nation as big as this! But it was a nice literary device, right?