Sprouting Healthy Kids

By Andrew W. Smiley    

At Sustainable Food Center (SFC), our mission is simple—we help people grow, share, and prepare good food. Our programs include direct-to-consumer farm marketing, community gardening, and nutrition education, all of which boast myriad successes. Plenty of adults visit the Austin Farmers’ Market, maintain a community garden plot or attend our Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre cooking classes.

But what about the children?

In addition to its regular programming, SFC is turning its attention to the growing problem—some say epidemic—of childhood obesity and diet-related diseases. SFC envisions schools where cafeterias serve fresh food from local farmers, where students tend gardens on campus and learn to cook what they grow; where math, science, language and social studies extend beyond the classroom into nearby farms and kitchens; and where farmers, chefs, nutritionists and others assume the role of teacher for a day.

That’s exactly what some Austin middle-school students will see this fall, because of SFC’s new Sprouting Healthy Kids food systems education project.

Though AISD Food Services is generally ahead of the curve when it comes to meeting basic nutritional standards, research suggests that children are more likely to adopt consistently healthy eating behaviors if they’re involved in such activities as gardening and interactive nutrition classes.

“Every student who participates in SFC’s current youth gardening program samples at least one new fruit or vegetable from the garden,” says Karen Banks, program director for SFC’s gardening initiative. “After trying Swiss chard for the first time, one third grader at UT Elementary School sought out an edible leaf every time he visited the garden.”

This fall, Sprouting Healthy Kids will begin as a pilot project in select Austin-area middle schools that have a high percentage of students at risk for diet-related diseases. SFC has been working with school officials, food service workers, and farmers throughout Central Texas to develop ways for schools to get local food into the lunchroom.

And, in the classroom, faculty members at our partner schools are creating lesson plans for core curriculum classes such as math, science, language and social studies that share positive food messages while meeting the ever-important Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards.

Along with the exciting new additions in classrooms and cafeterias, SFC has produced a Sprouting Healthy Kids after-school activity guide. Staff and volunteers who lead after-school programs at our partner sites will use the guide to direct students in hands-on educational gardening and cooking activities, and to facilitate visits to local farms, gardens, restaurants, food pantries and other partner sites.

Among our first school partners is AISD’s new Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. Principal Jeanne Goka is enthusiastic about the project.

“The health of young women and children is a cause that Ann Richards championed throughout her life,” she says. “There are strong and obvious connections between health, nutrition and learning. The knowledge that students will gain through this program will empower them to make positive food choices throughout their lives.”