The Farm-to-School Movement as a Solution

Opinion / Childhood obesity statistics have caught the attention of every aspect of our nation.

Currently, between 16 and 33 percent of children and adolescents are obese. According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, 28 percent of school-aged children in Hawaii are either overweight or obese, and one in every three children born in the United States in 2000 will develop diabetes.

In Hawaii, many children have a limited exposure to the wide range of healthy local foods that are available. According to a 2009 survey conducted by the School Nutrition Association, in more than 80 percent of the nation’s schools, fewer than half of the entrees are cooked from scratch. In Hawaii, this number is even greater.

Our children face health and learning difficulties, some of them never before seen in children and youth, including hypertension, depression, allergies, asthma, diabetes. And sadly, it seems we are eating our way into these situations.

Locally and across the nation, people are uniting in an attempt to bring fresh produce to students, through the procurement of fresh fruits and vegetables, sourced from local farmers and school-based gardens.

Back to the Basics

From the first lady’s “Let’s Move” initiative and White House garden to the outburst in reality television focused on healthy living, childhood obesity prevention is more prominant than ever. To reverse the current highly processed lunch trend, dozens of celebrity chefs, such as self-named “renegade lunch lady” Chef Ann Cooper, are popularizing a movement to transform school lunch programs throughout the nation. In her blog, Cooper suggests working towards a program that emphasizes the health of students “over the financial health of agribusiness corporations,” by getting back to basics. Public health efforts such as Farm-to-School and Healthy School Lunch programs, seek to curb this trend.

Farm-to-School programs link local farmers with schools. This simple idea provides great potential as a solution to two of the major challenges facing our islands: concerns about the diet and health of children and the disappearance of small farms. The success of nationwide Farm-to-School efforts have proven to substantially contribute to improved nutrition for students, less energy expenditure from importing foods and increased economic opportunity for local farmers.

Gardening Activists

Numerous Farm-to-School programs have been piloted in Hawaii, and new projects are constantly sprouting up through public-private partnerships and strong support from local school administrators, food service managers, teachers, parents and students. These programs also rely on external support from non-profit organizations, such as Kokua Hawaii Foundation’s ‘AINA In Schools (Actively Integrating Nutrition and Agriculture in Schools), MAO Organic Farms, The Kohala Center through its Hawaii School Garden Hui, the Hawaii Food Policy Council, Ulupono, as well as hundreds of volunteers dedicated to growing a resilient food system for Hawai’i.

Advocates of such programs in Hawaii say the implementation of local Farm-to-School movements will provide youth with increased opportunities for health-promoting exercise and nutrition, while recapturing the culturally lost skill of growing our own food.

Nancy Redfeather, Program Director for Hawai’i Island School Garden Network, says “The School Garden is the ideal living learning laboratory for our youth to learn about food, health, environment and culture. Students can work with real life micro systems of food, water, energy and waste to develop their skills of observation, research, questions, creativity and gain lifelong skills that add health and value to their family and community.”

A study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that adolescents who participated in garden-based nutrition intervention increased their servings of fruits and vegetables more than students who did not participate in the program. The results of this study mirror the experiences of those working on Farm-to-School programs in Hawai’i.

Garden docent, Kelly Luscomb, said the positive results she saw in teaching students how to grow their own food were tremendous. “Food is no longer just an item on the shelf, students are able to appreciate and understand the value of vegetables and as they learn to take care of their garden, they learn to take care of themselves.”

Stumbling Blocks

Proper education pertaining to food safety in school gardens and the lack of local crops needed to support the Department of Education’s (DOE) food consumption demands are at the top of the list of barriers Farm-to-School and Healthy Lunch Programs face. The misinformation seems to be that there is enough food grown in Hawaii for the DOE to source locally, and that if food is grown in a school garden it is safe. Until the complex goal of sourcing more food from local farmers can be achieved, school gardens can provide a feasible and rewarding start.

The Path Forward

The seriousness of childhood obesity demands our attention, and the complexity of the issue requires a coordinated effort on the part of our national and local policymakers, parents, public schools and even the children themselves. Our island communities face unique challenges, and local solutions simply make sense. Establishing school-based community gardens has the potential to bring everyone to the table by addressing child healthfulness in an immediate, tangible way–after all, lettuce, carrots and bean seeds planted at the beginning of the school year bring fresh salad in May. Ask the kindergarten class at Waikiki Elementary, they’ll tell you all about it.