Can changing what schools serve for lunch help to address deep challenges in the food and education systems, while inspiring ecological awareness in children?
A child in the state of California’s public education system will consume around 4,000 school meals between the time of entering kindergarten and leaving high school.
With more than 6 million children attending California state schools, the simple question of what gets served for lunch, and how it’s served, impacts on social-ecological systems in many ways — through child health and nutrition; through the environmental footprint of farming and food production systems supported by school purchases; through the outlooks and behaviors shaped through kids’ exposures to particular foods; through the support of local-scale food production chains, or not — as well as how all of this links in to learning.
The California Food for California Kids program, an initiative of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California USA, has brought together school administrators, teachers, farmers and of course children from across the state in an effort to overhaul the state’s notoriously unhealthy school lunch programs, and take advantage of the bounty of fresh produce that California supplies.
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The program encourages schools to source fresh, seasonal, locally produced ingredients for school meals, and at the same time educates children about where their food comes from and how it is produced.
What began as a pilot ‘California Thursdays‘ collaboration between the Center and the Oakland Unified School District during 2012-2013, has spread rapidly into a network of 58 schools across the state, serving 283 million meals a year to 1.6 million students — covering around a third of the entire state school system.
The program celebrates California’s wide agricultural, culinary and ethic diversity, for example with a freely available cookbook ‘Rethinking School Lunches: Cooking With California Food in K-12 Schools‘ that introduces a 6-5-4 School Lunch Matrix: ‘six dishes students know and love, five ethnic flavor profiles, and four seasons’.
Two sets of accompanying curriculum materials bring food-based learning into the classroom: one linking history, geography and food traditions from around the world, and a further collaboration with National Geographic linking learning about food, culture, health and the environment to the state’s mandated academic standards.
Integrating food into school curricula serves as a powerful ecological learning tool, particularly in exploring the links between food and climate change, according to author Michael Pollan.
In a state with America’s highest rate of children living in poverty (27 percent), schools can provide a key point of access to good nutrition essential for developing young minds and bodies. Access to good, healthy food may in turn help reduce childhood obesity, which affects nearly a third of American children, while setting up millions of children to live healthier and more ecologically connected lives.