10/22/2014 12:28 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2014

Education Sets the Table for Healthy Eating in School

"Give a child a free lunch, and you might feed him for a day. Teach a child about healthy eating, and you feed him nutritiously for a lifetime."

As universal free lunch policies are being implemented nationally -- including a pilot for some public middle schools in New York City -- we offer this twist on the old proverb about fishing. Access alone might not be enough. This lesson is also relevant in the nutrition standards debate.

The Child Nutrition Act comes up for reauthorization in 2015, and the corporate-backed School Nutrition Association argues that children aren't eating the healthier meals schools are being compelled to serve. Though the claim is debatable --- studies show that school food waste has not increased -- it's certainly true it is taking time for many students to accept the healthier lunch options. But with a burgeoning national epidemic of child obesity and diabetes, the answer isn't to just give up. Instead, what's needed is education.

Nearly 20 years ago, researchers at our institution showed that standard nutrition education alone won't prompt children to eat healthy foods offered in school cafeterias; rather, such efforts must be coupled with experience preparing these foods in the classroom . Subsequent studies have established 30 to 50 hours a year of good-quality, behaviorally focused nutrition education as important to motivate and equip students to make healthy food choices. This nutrition education includes not only the importance of nutrients, but also ecological sustainability, art, cooking, gardening, physical activity, food systems, science, and technology.

Yet currently students nationwide only receive about 10 to 13 hours of nutrition education a school year. When nutrition is offered, it is most commonly taught as part of health education and science units. Typically it is not a part of core curriculum, and it's not required.

In New York City, our own recent study of nutrition education programs (NEPs) in elementary schools found that:

• Overall, only 39% of schools in the three boroughs studied (Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens) had one or more nutrition education programs. Most had only one. Many of the city's elementary schools offer no nutrition education at all.
• Nutrition education programs are found primarily in schools within the lowest and highest rates of childhood obesity - a clear sign that the programs are not reaching many of the students who need them most.
• Manhattan, which overall is more affluent, has a higher proportion of schools with total NEPs than the other two boroughs - suggesting again that many students in need are missing out.

We recognize that with academic requirements, standardized testing, and a lack of school staff with nutrition expertise, most schools have limited capacity to provide 30 to 50 hours of nutrition education. However, our study also pointed out that there are many nutrition education programs run by non-profits, agencies, departments of health, and universities that work alongside teachers, school administrators and staff.

We have witnessed great advances in policies relating to what children eat in schools. Instead of rolling back these gains, we should be strengthening these policies with additional requirements for nutrition education, increased funding for the programs that provide it, and more support for schools that want to offer it. We would like to see the percentage of schools with NEPs double by 2020, so that most NYC school children, particularly those in the highest-needs schools, have access to education that helps them build healthy futures.

Pam Koch is the Executive Director, and Renata Peralta is a Doctoral Fellow at the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education, and Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University

1. New York; Boston; Detroit; Houston; Philadelphia
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