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Reading, Writing and Raspberries: Food and Nutrition in U.S. Schools

by The Washington Office of Public Policy


Contact: Office of Public Policy GBGM-Women's Division 100 Maryland Avenue, NE Room 530 Washington, DC 20002 (202)488-5660 Fax:(202) 488-5681
Office of Public Policy
GBGM-Women's Division
100 Maryland Avenue, NE Room 530
Washington, DC 20002
Fax:(202) 488-5681
Youth gleans cabbage from field in Virginia during a Harvest of Hope retreat sponsored by the Society of St. Andrews.
Youth gleans cabbage from field in Virginia during a Harvest of Hope retreat sponsored by the Society of St. Andrews.
Image by:Courtesy of Carol Breitinger
Source: Response


July 2005

Every day, more than 26 million children in over 99,000 public and non-profit private schools across the country eat lunches subsidized by the National School Lunch Program.1  Good nutrition promotes education because children learned better when they ate better.  “Education and food are fundamental conditions for health, as recognized by the World Declaration on Nutrition adopted by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the U.N. and the World Health Organization Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion.  Health, education and nutrition support and enhance each other.”2  School is the perfect place for children to learn healthy eating habits.  However, much of the food available to American children in school fails to meet their nutritional needs.  Many children are more likely to choose a doughnut to eat than they are to choose a ripe peach. 

Schools participating in the National School Lunch Program are required to provide meals that meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) nutritional guidelines.  These guidelines recommend that no more than 30% of calories in a school meal can come from fat and no more than 10% of the calories in a meal can come from saturated fat.  School lunches must also provide 1/3 of the Recommended Dietary Allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories.3

However, many schools are falling short of the USDA’s nutritional guidelines.  According to a report to Congress by the General Accounting Office entitled School Lunch Program: Efforts Needed to Improve Nutrition and Encourage Healthy Eating,  about 43% of elementary schools, 74% of middle schools and 98% of high schools have vending machines, school stores, canteens, or snack bars which often offered foods high in fat, sodium, or added sugars.4  “…a relatively small percentage of school districts have policies in place that require schools to offer fruit and vegetables as a la carte items, and 23 % of districts require schools to prohibit the sale of foods that have little nutritional value as a la carte items.”5    

Soda and junk food vending machines pose one of the biggest obstacles to healthy food habits in schools.  Students often substitute or supplement their lunches with drinks or snacks from school vending machines, which sell products that are high in fat, salt and sugar.  The average soda-drinking 12-19-year-old male drinks more than 868 cans of soda a year,6 and the average 12-ounce can of soda contains the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of added sugar.7  Increased consumption of fat, salt and sugar leaves children at a much higher risk for heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

Soda and junk food companies have purposely targeted schools as places to market their drinks to young people because research has shown that loyalty to a particular product brand is formed in adolescence.  Many schools sign “exclusive pour contracts” with soda companies, promising to host vending machines stocked with only their sodas in exchange for large cash payments.  Some schools are hesitant to ban soda and junk food vending machines because they are afraid to lose the financial support that soda companies provide.  School vending contracts often represent a small percentage of a school’s total budget.  Some schools, like North Community High School in Minneapolis, have replaced junk food and soda machines with machines that sell water, fruit juice and healthy snack options with no financial loss to the school.8  Other schools have made up for lost corporate revenue by holding alternative fundraisers, like car washes, walk-a-thons and holiday gift wrapping.9

In response to these threats to children’s health, educators, parents, farmers, and activists are coming together to create programs and policies that make nutritious foods available to students and teach them healthy food habits.  Farm to School programs are being organized across the country.  Farm to School programs enable schools to purchase fresh, nutritious food directly from local farmers.  A study of farm to school programs in California found that when farm-fresh foods are on the menu, students are more likely to participate in the school meal program.  The report also found that students choosing Farm to School meals wasted less food than their peers.10

Farm to School programs have multiple benefits.  First, they bring nutritious food directly into the schools and help students develop eating habits that promote good health.  These programs also stimulate the local economy and offer much needed support to family farms.  Connections to local farms help students understand how their individual food choices link them to local farmers, the land, and the overall health of the environment.  Farm to School programs present opportunities for teachers to integrate lessons about nutrition, plant biology, and economics into the curriculum with field trips to local farms, cooking demonstrations, and visits to farmers’ markets.

In Berkeley, California at the Martin Luther King Junior Middle School, the Edible Schoolyard creatively uses a school garden and kitchen to teach students about everything from harvesting corn to baking biscuits.  The Edible Schoolyard has been featured on PBS, the Food Network Canada, and will be in the 2005 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.  Students actively participate in the maintenance of the Edible Schoolyard garden, and as they turn the compost pile, they discover the process of decomposition and its place in the life cycle.  Children who have never seen a fresh artichoke before can plant artichokes in the garden and watch them grow.  Students learn how cover crops prevent erosion, attract beneficial insects, and fertilize the soil.  

In the program’s kitchen, food from the garden is used to teach students lessons about nutrition, history, and geography, among others.  One lesson includes a study of what serfs in Europe ate in the Middle Ages.  Another lesson teaches students about the special foods cooked for the Day of the Dead Festival in Mexico.  Every class uses seasonal produce from the Edible Schoolyard garden, incorporates lessons on ecology, nutrition, healthy food choices, and implements California state standards for World History, English and Reading.11

The Edible Schoolyard serves as a model for how schools can successfully teach children the importance of good nutrition and healthy eating.  According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “establishing healthy eating habits at a young age is critical to proper growth and development; it also makes it more likely that healthy habits will continue into adulthood.”12  Innovative programs like the Edible Schoolyard demonstrate that the process of imparting this knowledge to children can be stimulating, creative and fun.  As one young Edible Schoolyard gardener said, “The garden looks beautiful, it smells great, the sounds are very calming, and the feel of the plants is wonderful.”13


  • Read Resolution #109. Health and Wholeness (pp. 308-13) and Resolution #202. Family Farm Justice (pp. 521-22) in the Book of Resolutions2004 (BOR 2004.)
  • Start a campaign to get soda and junk food vending machines out of your local school!  In 2002, parents, teachers, students and advocates mounted a successful campaign to ban soda from all the schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, one of the largest school districts in the country.  For information on how to start your own campaign, contact the Center for Food and Justice: Center for Food and Justice, Urban and Environmental Policy Institute, 1600 Campus Road, Los Angeles, CA 90041, Phone:  323-341-5099 http://departments.oxy.edu/uepi/cfj/Articles/BanningSodasinYourSchool.pdf
  • Start a Farm to School program at your local school!  Farm to School programs are operating in 422 schools districts and 22 states.  For resources on starting up a Farm to School program, contact the Community Food Security Coalition:  Community Food Security Coalition, P.O. Box 209, Venice, CA 90294, Phone: 310-822-5410  http://www.foodsecurity.org

1 USDA, “Nutrition Program Facts - National School Lunch Program,” http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd.Lunch/AboutLunch/NSLPFactSheet.pdf”.

2 The World Health Organization Website.  WHO Information Series on School Health Document Fourhttp://www.who.int/school_youth_health/media/en/428.pdf


4 United States General Accounting Office.  Report to Congressional Requesters.  School Lunch Program: Efforts Needed to Improve Nutrition and Encourage Healthy Eating.  May 2003.  http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d03506.pdf

5 Ibid.

6 Center for Food and Justice & Urban Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College, “Challenging the Soda Companies: The Los Angeles Unified School District Soda Ban,” September 2002, http://departments.oxy.edu/uepi/cfj/resources/SodaBan.htm

7 Commercial Alert, “Childhood Obesity and the Marketing of Junk Food in Schools,” http://www.commercialalert.org/obesity.pdf

8 Center for Science in the Public Interest, “Dispensing Junk: How School Vending Undermines Efforts to Feed Children Well,” May 2004, http://www.cspinet.org/dispensing_junk.pdf


10 California Food and Justice Coalition, “Healthy Farms, Healthy Students: Farm to School in California – Frequently Asked Questions,” http://www.foodsecurity.org/california/cfjc_f2s_faq.pdf

11 The Edible Schoolyard, http://www.edibleschoolyard.org

12 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Center s for Disease Control and Prevention website. http://www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/nutrition/guidelines/summary.htm

13 The Edible Schoolyard, http://www.edibleschoolyard.org

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Date posted: Jul 20, 2005