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The Case for Healthy Lunch

This past Friday, I had the pleasure of spending time with a few of our students at the park, and then offered to provide a ride home for two of them. During my conversation with one student on the way home, something miraculous happened. The student told me he had gone to Burger King recently and, to his surprise, he wasn’t as interested in the burger as he once was. In fact, he said, it kind of made him a little sick. Now, I don’t mean to pick on Burger King, but there is a good reason this was a miraculous statement.You see, this student was not a fan of healthy food, or tasting much of anything new and different. Yet, over the past four weeks of healthy lunches at One Spark, he has increasingly expanded his taste buds and challenged himself to try new foods. So, when I asked him why he didn’t enjoy the burger as much, he declared that it was due to how good all that healthy food made him feel. I tell ya, that was a moment for celebration. If I hadn’t been driving, I’d have jumped for joy.

Last year, I published an essay for my former school called “A Case for Healthy Lunch”. Its message is certainly one that bears revisiting, in support of the current push in our community by some incredibly proactive parents to change the menus at local schools and provide students with better nutrition. Another celebration! Yet, this movement still needs help. Therefore, with some minor updates, I’d like to make this case (from an educator’s standpoint) once again.

We as an educational community can’t afford to ignore the quality of food we are asking children to put into their bodies, and we need everyone’s help and understanding to create a system where healthy lunches are not only valued, but looked forward to. If you read our Philosophy page, I mentioned our commitment to whole child education. Any school or program, or “non school” academy, that promotes whole child education cannot and should not be doing so unless there is an authentic and dedicated effort to ensure that wholesome nutrition is valued by all members of the community. After all, there are few things more instrumental in determining the health, wellness, and stamina of students (or anyone for that matter!) than the food they put into their bodies. And, we at One Spark take this commitment very seriously; it is our intent to try and “walk the walk” when it comes to nutrition. After all, how can we espouse whole child education without looking at the foods we promote in our daily lives? How can we expect children to develop healthy habits, or understand the importance of moderation in snacks and treats, if there is no peer group with whom to practice?

Few can argue that by creating a culture and environment that supports good health, we have a chance to change the patterns and habits that children are developing. Unfortunately, we must first look at some uncomfortable statistics to understand the urgency of the healthy food movement in schools that is gaining momentum. For one, it is believed that 1 in 3 children will develop diabetes either as children or adults. Type 2 diabetes is most often caused by a lack of physical activity and poor diet, which includes the over consumption of sugar and foods that raise sugar levels in the body. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), it is expected that 366 million people will have diabetes by 2030, just about double today’s figures. Once diabetes kicks in, it is noted that fewer than 5% of type 2 diabetics can make the lifestyle changes required for treatment. After all, sugar is an addictive substance. The best way to control type 2 diabetes is to prevent it in the first place, and the number one way to prevent it is to change one’s environment. The saying “Out of sight, out of mind” is helpful to remember, which is why I’ve asked that certain foods not show up at One Spark Academy, and that students not use the vending machines on site at the Teen Center during instructional time (see Student Agreement). Secondly, the increased portion sizes that children are getting used to, the prevalence of fast food, and the empty calories in many processed foods which children regularly eat, combined with a reduction in physical activity, is making obesity rates in children go through the roof. Most children who are obese spend their lifetime being obese, since habits developed in childhood are hard to break.  I’m sure there are many more facts and figures that we can all drum up, but the point is clear: education about health has to happen at home AND in the learning environment, since the environment amongst peers is a huge factor in determining what children think and how they behave.

Just to clarify things a bit, I’m not a dietitian, or even someone who claims to know a lot about food science. I could certainly eat healthier food more often, and less food altogether (the latter problem being that I’m a product of an Italian mother). However, what I can do is recognize what food is and what food is not. I don’t kid myself when eating non-nutritive food, by thinking that because it says “High in Calcium” that I shouldn’t be eating my spinach and yogurt (although some varieties of yogurt have as much refined sugar as a can of Coke). Additionally, like many healthy adults, I recognize that the more our factories have taken whole ingredients out of foods and replaced them with chemicals, preservatives, and processing in order to make them “less caloric and more nutritious”, and then combined this with unrealistic portion sizes, the fatter and more unhealthy as a society we have become. As consumers and shoppers, we can make informed choices. Unfortunately, most children can’t make these choices because they just don’t know what real food is and what it is not, and they are not doing the shopping. They don’t know where their food comes from either. As one case in point, you may have seen the video of chef Jamie Oliver where he interviewed a classroom of children, and the students couldn’t recognize a tomato from a zucchini. (If you have not seen it, the link is imbedded below.) Furthermore, there is very little ability to determine how many treats are too much, when processed foods and treats can be a 3-meal a day occurrence. During one school week in the 2009-2010 school year, while in the public system, I had four afternoons where well-meaning parents brought in unexpected birthday treats (after all, birthdays only come once a year, right?), and on that Friday we had a rewarded ice cream party (a school decision, not mine). Thankfully, a few of my students recognized that what was being served was not really ice cream, but a totally processed alternative, and passed. Generally speaking though, when this overall lack of knowledge is combined with an addiction to sugar, salt and certain chemicals, we’re in big trouble.

During the last seven years of my teaching in the local district of the public school system, I experimented with “Healthy Lunch” in my own classroom, and the results of this “experiment” were fundamental to my educational philosophy: if I am to promote whole child education, I will have an unwavering approach to helping children establish healthier habits. During my years of hosting Healthy Lunch, which was only once a week since I had to do this in the sanctity of my own classroom, I developed a few important conclusions. Firstly, the more people there are who eat healthy food, the more fun it is. When it’s “cool at school” to eat well, more students will bring in real food to snack on and enjoy for lunch. They’ll talk about their foods, they’ll outdo each other in how many veggies they’ll pack into a salad, and they’ll share a delicious homemade concoction. On the other hand, when there is an absence of community support regarding healthy eating, as there is in most schools, even the best of intentions get sabotaged. While in the public education system, I often found wholesome sandwiches, whole fruits, and entire salads thrown into the trash outside my door, or lunchboxes left for days with homemade tuna salad in them. On one occasion, I found two Hershey bar wrappers right next to a beautiful untouched sandwich, in the trash. Why? Because a peer had a roll up, cookies, or chips, or that child simply needed to rush off to play.  The second conclusion is that most kids have no idea what healthy food is, and this requires real instruction and a commitment to change. For example, students used to tell me that a granola bar should be one of their three wholesome, real food items at Healthy Lunch because “This is from Whole Foods” (which is a great place where I love to shop, no doubt, but even Whole Foods sells some processed food. How about some locally grown fruits from Whole Foods?). Or perhaps, “It’s healthy because it’s a salad.” Well, when that salad consists of iceberg lettuce, croutons, and two heaps of fat-filled dressing, it’s not better than a donut. Thirdly, teachers and parents are roles models and need to lead the way. That is why our One Spark staff will not be bringing fast food, soda or junk food onto the premises either, and we ask that all adults visiting do the same. Finally, I believe that if we spend time making a healthy lunch, we need time to enjoy it. During our days of Healthy Lunch at my former school, we’d have a rule of spending at least 15 minutes actually eating, although many kids took longer than this. For some kids, this weekly pocket of time was the most time they’d take eating lunch all week. We’d eat, talk, laugh, and feel good about the food being put into our bodies. At One Spark, we value our time eating lunch every day, for almost 30 minutes. During this time, lunch is to be enjoyed, not wasted.

If you have had the pleasure of experiencing any of our One Spark lunches (see samples below), you know we take this time very seriously! Students not only get involved in the prep and set up of lunch (yes, they chop vegetables, peel onions, squeeze lemons, and much more), but we ALL sit down together and enjoy menu items that Laura (our master food planner) has organized: sautéed vegetables over whole grain pasta, quinoa salad, butternut squash tacos, tofu stir fry, Chinese chicken salad, fresh guacamole, chopped fruit kabobs… the amazing list goes on.

Therefore, my case for Healthy Lunch is really a request that everyone try something different. Please join me in making One Spark Academy a model for the “New School Lunch”, a place where kids love to eat well, where we all enjoy and understand the benefits of real food, and where we all commit to being a little healthier every day. If we ALL have a shared vision together, our philosophy at One Spark will succeed in its promise of promoting better health. The best part is that, by embracing this mindset outside of the instructional day, your whole family will reap benefits that will last a lifetime- and perhaps even a much longer one!