by Frances Hardy
For the past nine months, I’ve shared most of my breakfasts, lunches and dinners with fifth graders. A dining hall of 100 gets noisy quickly with demands for milk to be passed or requests for second helpings. The group of students I eat with changes weekly as they flow through the Glen Helen Outdoor Education Center.
Usually, I observe my group of students and let them carry on their own conversations about TV shows I’ve never heard of, roller coasters I would never dare to ride or the latest drama between their peers. Some picky kids only want the top layer of lasagna with cheese and noodles, others devour all of the tater tots and don’t leave enough for the rest of the table, and still others refuse to eat at all.
The kids that roll through the Glen for the residential programs come from a myriad of communities, both near and far. They are as geographically wide-ranging as they are economically diverse. Each student comes to the dining room table with a very different opinion of the food we serve each meal, and I wonder if this might have something to do with where they are coming from. Some complain about the lack of choice in the meal—there is usually one main dish and one to two sides. Others enter the dining hall with mouths agape at the amount of food on the table.
I have noticed that the economic diversity is reflected in the different attitudes toward the food that is set before the children. Some students comment on how much better it is than what they receive at school, while others can’t wait to get back to their salad, soup and sandwich bar that offer many more options and combinations. This leads me to wonder: What really causes these differences in attitudes toward food? Do students really feel differently about food and make different food choices if their school has enough money to offer a salad bar every day?
In 2009, the American Journal of Public Health published an article reporting that students attending schools within half a mile of a fast food restaurant were more likely to be overweight as well as consume less vegetables and more soda than students who were further away from fast food eateries in California. However, another study funded by the National Institute of Health, found no correlation for school-aged children between the proximity to grocery stores and healthy weight and the accessibility of fast food chains and obesity.
We encourage our students to waste as little food as possible—to appreciate all the resources (time, money, energy) that go into producing, transporting, buying and preparing the food we serve. Students are given the autonomy to choose which food to put on their own plate and are encouraged to eat all of what they serve themselves. If the goal is reached, with food waste from personal plates under a certain number of cups, a raucous cheer ensues, and the students are rewarded with the opportunity to embarrass adults in the dining hall. Some students rise to the challenge of “No Wasted Food,” passing completely clean plates to be taken to the dishwasher. Others don’t jump on the bandwagon, though I think this has less to do with their economic backgrounds—it seems that privileged and underprivileged kids alike can waste food or be model earth stewards.
According to the EPA, the United States wastes about 35 million tons of food each year. This figure represents about 21% of all of our solid waste. From a different perspective, American households have been reported to waste from 14-25% of the groceries they buy. It’s a hard concept to get across to a fifth grader—that their little bit of wasted soup or grilled cheese has an impact on our collective waste. However, it’s an important message to get across, and I like to think that our wasted food challenge encourages these kids to start thinking about how they can have a positive effect on our natural resources.
Food deserts are communities with limited access to affordable and healthy foods. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where food deserts lie in the communities surrounding Yellow Springs in Greene County, where our outdoor education center resides, but this area is not exempt from the plight of food deserts. In 2011, the Yellow Spring News wrote an article about a food desert in Fairborn, a city that borders Yellow Spring to the west.
According to the USDA Food Environment Atlas, there is one grocery store in Greene Country for every 7,142 residents. This means that there are fewer grocery stores in Greene County, compared to the rest of Ohio, which has one grocery store per every 5,555 Ohioans on average. These are not good numbers, so it is not surprising that according to the article “10 States with the Deadliest Eating Habits,” Ohio ranked number eight. To actually quantify access to food, it is necessary to look at “microenvironments,” analyzing how close and accessible grocery stores are to families, how available fresh and healthy options are and if the food is affordable.
About a year ago, New York Times reporter, Gina Kolata, wrote that the jury was still out as to whether food deserts correlate with obesity in the United States. On the one hand, a study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that poor neighborhoods had two to three times more fast food restaurants and corner stores compared to wealthy neighborhoods, but the study in California also found that the low-income communities had close to twice as many large grocery stores per square mile.
It is clear that more research is needed to understand how to promote healthy diets for kids as well as how food deserts and the proximity of fast food restaurants contribute to the plague of obesity in the U.S. I would argue that along with promoting healthy eating habits, it is our duty to instill a sustainable eating ethos. Food deserts are only relevant as comparisons between places with abundant healthy food and those places without. If we happen to have access to nutritious and affordable meals, let us at least be responsible enough to not waste it away and to teach this ethos to our youth. A week spent at outdoor school won’t necessarily change a student forever, but hopefully their excitement about “No Wasted Food” will last longer than just their time at the Glen when they are rewarded with adults singing “I’m a Little Teapot” or proposing to a turtle.