Waters gets proof that Edible Schoolyard works
School gardens and cooking classes are the height of food fashion. Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters has championed them as a way to get kids to eat their greens. Michelle Obama, a fashion icon herself, is also a fan and has made culinary education a centerpiece of Let’s Move, her crusade to reverse the tide of childhood obesity.
As with any fashion, the concept is not without its critics. Earlier this year, cultural commentator Caitlin Flanagan argued in the Atlantic magazine that garden and cooking lessons took children away from the more-important studies of math and reading. She had special ire for Waters, whom she alleged had “thrust thousands of schoolchildren into the grip of a giant experiment, one that is predicated on a set of assumptions that are largely unproved, even unexamined.”
Now Waters is hitting back with an academic analysis of her Edible Schoolyard experiment in the Berkeley public schools. Over three years, from the fall of 2005 till spring 2009, University of California at Berkeley researchers followed 238 students and determined that a combination of healthful food at school, gardening and culinary education increased students’ nutrition knowledge and broadened their taste for and consumption of fruits and vegetables.
The study was funded by the Chez Panisse Foundation, Waters’s nonprofit that supports food education and empowerment programs.
“It’s a beautiful thing to have the scientific community validate what we’ve been doing,” Waters said in a telephone interview. “It seems so crazy to me that we need to prove anything – when you walk into the school you just feel it -- but you need to have the studies from important institutions to put that out to the world.”
Berkeley’s Edible Schoolyard program is the most advanced in the nation. The cafeterias offer made-from-scratch meals using local meats and produce. There are gardens in the district’s 11 elementary and three middle schools and 13 instructional kitchens (classrooms or portable cooking carts). Teachers are also offered professional development and curriculum materials that focus on food, culture, health and the environment.
Perhaps the report's most remarkable finding is that such culinary programs can change students’ eating habits. According to the USDA, teenagers in the United States eat about 3.5 servings of fruit and vegetables a day, less than half of the seven to eight servings that are recommended. After one year in what researchers describe as a “fully developed school lunch initiative,” fifth-graders ate nearly an extra serving of vegetables each day and a total of 1.5 extra servings of fruit and vegetables.
Students with more limited culinary programming, in contrast, ate fewer fruits and vegetables. Their consumption dropped by .4 servings per day. Continued exposure to culinary programs in middle school may sustain fruit and vegetable intake, the researchers concluded.
The programs also increased students’ knowledge and attitudes about healthful eating and nutrition. Sixty percent of parents with children in highly developed programs said school changed their child’s knowledge about healthful food choices, compared to 36 percent in less-developed programs. And 35 percent of parents with children in highly developed programs said school improved their child’s eating habits, compared with 16 percent in less-developed programs.
Elementary school students from the schools with comprehensive programs also clearly expressed a higher preference for fruits and vegetables. The preference for fruits and vegetables leveled out among all schools by the seventh grade with one exception. Seventh-graders who had early culinary education were more likely to favor leafy, green vegetables.
There was one worrying result in the report. Although overall participation in school meals rose -- a boon for the cash-strapped program -- the growth came largely from an increase in paid meals. The number of meals eaten by low-income students who receive free or reduced-price meals dropped slightly. This is a concern because many low-income children rely on meals at school for a significant portion of their calories.
-- Jane Black
| September 23, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories: Food Politics, Sustainable Food | Tags: Jane Black, school lunch
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