Healthy Kids, Healthy Planet: The Power of Food in Environmental Literacy

    October 13, 2016
    by Curt Ellis

    Editor's Note: October is National Farm to School Month! We're thrilled to celebrate with this post from our advisor and FoodCorps co-founder and CEO Curt Ellis.

    October is National Farm to School Month, a six-year-old celebration of programs around the country working to connect kids to healthy food through cooking, gardening, and lunch trays filled with food from local farms. The organization I’m proud to lead, FoodCorps, plays a role in these efforts, providing the AmeriCorps people power that fuels farm-to-school efforts in hundreds of schools each year.

    If you were to ask many of our philanthropic supporters why FoodCorps is needed and what we achieve, they’d tell you we were founded to combat our nation’s runaway epidemics of obesity and diet-related disease, and that our secret sauce (other than homemade ranch dressing, of course) is that we’re good at getting kids––in our case, low-income children who are disproportionately held back from academic achievement and social mobility by inadequate nutrition––to eat their veggies.

    But that’s only half true. Not because it’s disingenuous (it’s not), but because it’s incomplete.

    Food Education is Environmental Education
    Beyond addressing critical issues of public health, food- and garden-based education and school cafeteria improvement play a vital role in enabling children to build a meaningful relationship with the natural world.

    Too often, we silo food and agriculture as a niche area of education: done right, it’s a luxury usually limited to well-resourced schools; done wrong, it’s a home-ec class that deserves its gendered place in the past, or a health unit where the instructor dedicates hours of precious class time to pointing at a government poster on the wall.

    But if our experience at FoodCorps has taught us anything, it’s that the reality can and must be different: food education is essential to the health and prosperity of our nation’s children, particularly those unjustly held back by their race, geography, or economic standing. And good food education is environmental education. If we want our children to love carrots, we need to give them the chance to growth them––and take a bite with the dirt still on. If we want to fix the health of our nation’s children, we need to leverage the $10 billion annual agricultural buying power of our schools to heal the working lands that feed them.

    By scaling up our nation’s commitment to food education, we have the chance to turn the universal act of eating into a powerful experience that fosters children’s health, their ability to learn, and a connection to the natural systems that they’ll carry throughout their lives. More and more schools are using food to drive exciting innovations in environmental education, building the case to bring ecoliteracy to the forefront of academics.

    Through garden-based education, schools are learning how to create immersive outdoor classrooms that support academic priorities and inspire in students a love of beets, earthworms and compost, all while giving them much-need exposure to nature in a technology- and textbook-driven world.

    Image Credit: Kelly Campbell

    What better way to teach first-graders about botany than in a class that culminates with cooking and sharing a five-plant-part salad brimming with roots (carrots), stems (celery), leaves (lettuce), flowers (nasturtiums) and seeds (sunflower)? And what better way to help middle school students understand climate change through a real-world greenhouse effect, where heat-trapping technology changes the ecosystem of their own garden?

    These experiences add up, reinforcing bigger ideas that shape kids’ lives:

    • Child development: building skills, confidence, and pride––a growth mindset instilled by growing food.
    • Environmental health: understanding concepts from pesticide-free farming to seasonal and local eating.
    • Academic opportunity: supporting different learning styles by giving non-book-learners a chance.

    Image Credit: Kelly Campbell

    An Opportunity in Every Meal
    Once children are excited about eating healthy food and are invested in caring about the lands and waters it comes from, big changes become possible in the cafeteria.

    Procuring local, sustainably grown foods for school meals represents a massive environmental opportunity that is rapidly being capitalized on by the farm-to-school field. Child nutrition programs have been dubbed the “sleeping giant” of local sourcing, accounting for nearly $800 million in ecologically minded investment in the 2013–14 school year, and the USDA has credited farm-to-school programs for inspiring this fast-paced shift to sustainable procurement. Farm-to-school efforts aren’t just about shifting attitudes among kids; they’re about reshaping our food economy in a way that has a dramatic impact on the all-powerful agricultural landscape.

    My mentors and colleagues across the food education field believe in a simple idea: that every meal is an opportunity for children to connect to the farms, soils, and natural systems that make our food possible, and this connection is a fundamental building block for health, values, and human potential that will shape kids for the rest of their lives.

    By transforming our nation’s schools into places where children build this kind of relationship with food, we create a ripple effect that spans across the generation of children we teach, and the millions of acres that nourish them. That’s the kind of change we should be celebrating not just now, but every month of the year.  

    Curt Ellis is co-founder and CEO of FoodCorps, the leading national service organization dedicated to improving children’s health. He has received the Heinz Award, GQ Leader Award, and Pearl Award for his work at the intersection of sustainability and health equity, and is an advisor to Blue Sky.