As a garden teacher and volunteer at the Edible Schoolyard, the middle school garden and kitchen program in Berkeley, CA, I loved watching a class of 30 or so kids, diverse in every way, work together to tend a one-acre garden bursting with vegetables, herbs, flowers, and chickens.

Visitors on a typical day could see tough, inner-city kids gently holding and stroking the hens, or munching on carrots just pulled from the ground, fresh with specks of rich, brown soil.  They could watch the students threshing and winnowing deep red amaranth stalks to remove the seeds, which would then be toasted in a pan during a lesson about the plant’s value to the Aztecs, centuries ago.

On my favorite days, we had such an abundance of food that we would harvest all day and then set the produce on a table after school.  I actually saw middle school kids pushing  one another to grab a head of lettuce or bunch of collard greens they could proudly take home to their families.

So I was interested in the recent news about the three-year study of the Berkeley School District’s garden, cooking and school lunch initiative, conducted by the University of California at Berkeley and commissioned by the Chez Panisse Foundation.  For years, school garden advocates have yearned for some research-based evidence to reinforce our belief that schools have a valuable opportunity to address what is an increasing public health nightmare: the diet-related poor health of our children.

This study appears to do that.  It determined, among other things, that children in schools with “highly developed” school lunch programs (with gardens and kitchen classes, as well as improved school lunch) were more likely to have better attitudes about healthy foods and eat more fruits and vegetables than students whose schools had  “less developed” school lunch programs (improved lunch choices but little gardening, cooking or nutrition instruction).

This is welcome news, especially due to the surprising lack of data about the effectiveness of school nutrition efforts.  Programs like the Edible Schoolyard operate with the belief that it is possible to give children the skills and knowledge to form healthier eating habits.  With all of the health issues that stem from what we eat, it certainly seems worthwhile to make our schools places where we teach children about food and serve meals that nourish them.

We are still left with the fact that schools cannot be expected to singlehandedly tackle the problem of our kids’ diets.  But the value of a curriculum that includes a school garden, kitchen and an integrated approach to food education extends well beyond its potential to influence students’ eating habits.  At the very least, there are numerous quantifiable, measurable skills to be gained. For example, basic math skills such as fractions are never more practical than when one is following a recipe in the kitchen.

No Clear Victory for Fruits, Vegetables 

People who teach children about gardening, cooking, and nutrition do not operate under the illusion that their students are going to have a sudden urge to eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and give up salty and sugary foods.  To me, it is enough to simply promote healthy and delicious foods as an alternative to addiction-forming, unhealthy food options.

This study and the conversation around it bring up larger questions that, if anything, are more difficult to answer, even more difficult than the question of whether schools can change kids’ eating habits.

For instance, can we ever accurately measure the influence that school food programs have on eating habits when kids are affected by so many other economic, sociological, cultural, and political factors?  Once students go home, how much control do they have over what they eat, especially if their circumstances drastically reduce the options available?

Or will their experience with school gardening, cooking, and celebrating good food make them more likely to eat healthier food later in life?  A longer-term study would be instructive, and perhaps it would further support programs like the Edible Schoolyard.

No matter what, however, the problems of access to healthy food and addictions to sweet, salty foods will persist.

I believe kids can distinguish good food from bad food, and that they appreciate good food, which I define as food that is fresh, nourishing, and prepared with skill and care.  But good food isn’t always as readily and affordably available as the cheap calories kids can get in salty and sweet snacks or fast food.  That’s the essence of our problem, and this is why educating children about food in schools must go hand in hand with making affordable good food available to everyone.

There are wonderful organizations across the country doing amazing work to address this.  Peoples Grocery, for example, has worked for years to improve the health of people in West Oakland by creating a local food system that provides access to healthy fresh food throughout the community.

This brings us back to the importance of school lunch reform, in Berkeley and other communities, where reformers began with the understanding that educating kids about food must happen before, and in conjunction with, changing the food in the cafeteria.  One thing I have witnessed for sure is that children are much more willing to try a new food if they have had a hand in growing it or cooking it.

Added Value in School Food Programs

So what exactly is it that we want our children to learn in school?  Our national obsession with test scores, coupled with tight state budgets, has made it a challenge to persuade schools to devote resources to gardens and food curriculums.  Without getting into the merits of standardized tests as instruments of assessment, consider the many qualitative skills and attitudes that are also important to learn in school–things like teamwork, self-restraint, respect for one another, listening, creative thought, resiliency, caring, cooperation, initiative taking, patience.  These are fundamental in achieving happiness and success, and they are all things I have seen students learn when they work in a garden or a school kitchen.

As a garden teacher, I have seen children discover that physical work can be fun and rewarding.  I have seen students who have spent time in school gardens develop ecoliteracy, an essential lesson if they are to adapt to our changing environment and make the crucial lifestyle changes that will help sustain this planet.

I agree with The Center for Ecoliteracy, one of the participants in the Berkeley lunch program study, which advocates for an approach to education that, “returns to the real basics: engaging with the natural world; understanding how nature sustains life; nurturing healthy communities; exploring the consequences of how we feed and provision ourselves; caring about the places where we live and the people and creatures in them.”

Since I left the Edible Schoolyard, I have enjoyed trying to influence my own son’s eating habits.  From early on, we tried to expose him to as many foods and tastes as possible in hopes of helping him develop a diverse palate.  We try to limit his sugar, give him balanced meals, and keep his snacks healthy.  He’s now 3 years old and eats just about anything; his meals are no different than our own.  He often asks when certain fruits are coming in season, his favorite vegetables are beets and broccoli.

I recently made a dinner of fried chicken (soaked overnight in buttermilk), mashed potatoes, biscuits, and green beans.  Our
son was most interested in the green beans, while we devoured the chicken and biscuits!  Exposure to new foods is important, and I hope that all schools can one day offer this experience to their students.

While my son’s eating habits and tastes will likely change, I think we have instilled in him an appreciation for good food, and I firmly believe in the potential for schools to do the same.