It's almost time for kids to go back to school. But for many children in Buffalo, this means a return to terribly unhealthy school lunches – fried chicken, pizza pockets, corn dogs and desserts loaded with high fructose corn syrup – that jeopardize the health and well-being of America's next generation. This needs to change. Many of Buffalo's public schools do not have kitchens – only the ability to reheat frozen processed foods high in sodium and fat. Buffalo's schools are beginning to see the negative impact the food they serve is having on their students.
Unfortunately, Buffalo gets a bad grade for childhood obesity and malnutrition. In New York State, 10 to 15 percent of low-income children ages 2 to 4 are obese. In Buffalo the range is higher, from 15 to 20 percent. It is unlikely that an overweight child will slim down by the time he or she reaches adulthood – eighty percent of children who are obese between the ages of 10 and 15 remain obese at age 25. Children who eat poorly are at greater risk of developing osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes and liver problems later in life.
Fortunately, schools can play a key role in reversing this trend and reinforce healthy eating behaviors. By emphasizing hands-on nutrition education, such as school garden projects and classroom cooking demonstrations, and by providing fresh, local fruits and vegetables in cafeterias, schools can encourage students to improve their diets.
Fifteen school districts in New York State, including Buffalo and Oswego County schools, have joined the national Farm to School movement, which connects schools to local farms with the purpose of serving healthy, organic meals in cafeterias. Kids benefit from the fresh, nutritious and tasty food, and the state economy benefits from expanding local food networks. By increasing the demand for agricultural products grown directly for human consumption, the Farm to School initiative has the potential to create billions in food sales that would benefit not only students, but also New York farmers, businesses and consumers.
Numerous programs are making food healthier in Buffalo. The Urban Roots Community Garden Center is committed to raising healthy, food-educated students. Not only does the center help promote local, organic, scratch-made, nutritionally balanced school meals, it also uses a school garden – where kids can get their hands dirty growing food – to teach children about the connection between their everyday choices and the health of their bodies, the community and the environment.
Unequal access to healthy foods is also a serious issue in Buffalo – obesity disproportionately impacts poor families that can afford only cheap, processed foods. A recent study shows that low-income populations are farther away from Buffalo supermarkets than more affluent residents.
Thankfully, a number of organizations are helping low-income children gain access to healthy foods and live healthier lifestyles – organizations like the Urban Roots Community Garden Center and the Soccer for Success program – and can serve as models for the development of a just, healthy and sustainable food system in Buffalo. The Soccer for Success program is working to reduce childhood obesity in 10 of Buffalo's public elementary schools in at-risk communities. By providing children with nutrition education and encouraging them to participate in healthy physical activity after school, Soccer for Success is improving the health and wellness of some of Buffalo's most at-risk children.
And at Kisoga Secondary School in Kampala, Uganda, students are being taught to manage a sustainable school garden that produces fresh fruits and vegetables. Food from the garden, served at lunch, has significantly decreased child malnutrition in the village. This is just one of many innovations highlighted by the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet project and the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition in the new book "Eating Planet: Challenge for Mankind and the Planet," which examines the effects of individual eating habits on health and the environment.
Child obesity and malnutrition are crippling problems for schoolchildren in Buffalo, Africa and elsewhere in the world. Innovative school food programs – like those of Farm to School and Uganda's Kisoga Secondary School – are making children healthier. Buffalo needs more school programs that emphasize nutrition education, hands-on gardening and organic, scratch-made, nutritious, locally sourced meals. Such programs can support healthy behavioral changes in children that can last a lifetime.
Danielle Nierenberg is project director of the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet project. Sophie Wenzlau is a research assistant with Nourishing the Planet.