Submitted by Laura Bilden, K-12 Instructional Coach and Julie Riechers, PK-5 Physical Education Teacher
Childhood obesity is a prevalent condition with serious health risks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2017), “One in five school-aged children (ages 6–19) are obese in the United States today.” School nutrition programs can influence the eating behaviors of many young people. Though schools alone cannot solve this epidemic, they play a critical role in shaping eating habits that follow children to adulthood.
Starmont Elementary School, of Arlington, IA, is among 20 schools participating in the Iowa Department of Education’s Team Nutrition Healthy Schools-Healthy Students Project. This initiative, funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, promotes healthy eating habits through school-based nutrition education, healthy school environments, and engagement of school staff,parents, and the community. Julie Riechers, Starmont’s PK-5 Physical Education Teacher, and Marsha Thomas, Starmont’s Food Service Director, began program implementation in the fall of 2017. Participating schools are categorized as project schools and control schools. Starmont Elementary, a project school, submits data to the University of Iowa who has partnered with Team Nutrition to evaluate program effectiveness.
As result of tight curriculums and pressure to perform on standardized tests, schools have deemphasized nutrition education. Nutrition units are often taught in isolation, over a period of several weeks, with few cross-curricular ties. The intent of this “one and done” approach is to cover nutrition concepts. Alternatively, the Healthy Schools Project aims to instill healthy eating habits that transfer to the home. Mrs. Riechers presents nutrition lessons which encompass math, science, and English language art standards throughout the year in fourth-grade classrooms. Food groups, serving sizes, and nutrition facts are the focus of instruction. Furthermore, students gain exposure to fruits and vegetables through tasting sessions and first through fifth graders receive monthly cafeteria coaching.
A moment of insight, expressed by Riechers’s fourth graders, followed a lesson involving portions. Students were surprised by how small the serving size of protein compares to other food groups. These moments of new understanding are critical for young people developing lifelong eating habits. Overeating, or under consuming specific food groups can lead to obesity and health problems.
The CDC reports that children in the U.S. are not eating enough fruits and vegetables. Children need adequate amounts of these nutrients to grow, develop, and reduce the risk of many chronic diseases. Obese children are at a higher risk of developing asthma, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, depression, adult obesity, cancer, and more (Healthy Schools: Childhood Obesity Facts, 2017).
The Healthy Schools Project promotes fruits and vegetables through sampling sessions and peer role modeling. Students learn nutrition facts and are encouraged to try varieties of produce. This year fourth graders sampled pomegranates, cherry tomatoes, tangelos, spinach, and jicama. Riechers was surprised by how well the students received the jicama; a vegetable none of them had tried before. Additionally, Riechers partners with FFA students in the delivery of cafeteria lessons for first through fifth-grades. FFA students present nutrition facts through displays and encourage students to try produce during lunch.
Although schools are positioned to reach many young people, family and community engagement are needed to instill healthy eating habits. Riechers includes summaries of nutrition lessons in the school’s newsletter to inform parents of the concepts their children are learning. More efforts to increase community engagement are being explored.
Childhood obesity presents a significant risk to the health of our future generations. Though not the final solution, educating young people on the benefits of eating a balanced diet is a sensible approach to fostering a healthier population. School prevention programs, with the support of families, communities, and other societal sectors, can promote awareness of nutrition concepts that go beyond the lunchroom.