Two months ago, Seattle-area 4th grader Michael Kenny came home from school with a burning desire to make vegetarian chili. His mom Liz nearly fell out of her seat. She knew her son was not fond of peppers—and he’d never shown much interest in cooking before. “They sent all the students home with a recipe, and when he came home he wanted to make it right away,” Liz says. “And most of the ingredients were vegetables!”
Michael and his classmates at Island Park Elementary on Washington’s Mercer Island had a chance to participate in a workshop called Pure Food Kids, run by the Beecher’s Cheese Flagship Foundation. Though it’s a one-time, two-and-a-half hour lesson, Pure Food Kids packs a lot in. The instructors, hired by the nonprofit arm of a successful Seattle artisan cheese company, ask the students to be “food detectives.” They show them how companies use marketing techniques to make their products look healthier than they actually are; how to carefully inspect nutrition statements and ingredient lists; and how to spot unhealthy additives like dyes and preservatives. They also give kids a quick cooking lesson, showing them how to make a simple chili. Most kids enjoy this part the most. “I liked chopping the peppers,” says Michael, who was in the “pepper group.”
Beecher’s Flagship Foundation executive director Kristin Hyde recently sent a survey to parents of middle school students to find out what information from the workshop their students retain from the 4th grade. A full 79 percent said their kids still read nutrition labels and ingredient lists before buying a product and 60 percent said their kids express an interest in avoiding processed foods as a result of the workshop. The workshop—which was launched in 2005—has been taught in 70 percent of Seattle’s elementary schools and is in about half of the school districts surrounding Seattle—reaching a combined 10,000 students a year.
“I have never seen another nutrition education program that has had this far of a reach,” says Hyde, who has worked on school food reform for over a decade. The program recently expanded to four elementary schools in New York City, where Beecher’s Cheese has a second store. Hyde’s goal is to have the workshop in 10 to 20 New York City schools by this fall.
Beecher’s Cheese owner Kurt Dammeier (the man behind Sugar Mountain, a portfolio of restaurants and food companies that includes Beecher’s) had an epiphany 20 years ago when he discovered he had an allergy to MSG. “MSG was the tip of the iceberg, really,” Dammeier says. “That’s when I realized that our industrial food system might be delivering food that’s not good for me.” He started a foundation, funded by 1 percent of sales from each Sugar Mountain company, to get this message out via kids.
Seattle-area students are gobbling up these nutrition facts and marketing tricks. Interviewed for a Pure Food Kids video, a handful of 4th and 5th graders remember what they picked up during the workshop. “I learned that if a word rhymes with gross, it’s a sugar,” says one girl. “I learned that trans fats are really, really, really, really bad for you,” says another. But most importantly, they’re also changing their habits. “I used to eat a little bit of candy when I got home, but now I eat fruits and vegetables,” says a girl with pigtails. A boy with curly red hair says the workshop inspired him to try fruits he thought he wouldn’t like.
Programs like Pure Food Kids are becoming more common across the country. FoodFight, a New York City nonprofit, now in 40 schools, teaches students media literacy, nutrition education, and basic cooking skills. National programs like FoodCorps, deploy young service members into low-income public schools around the country to teach kids about healthy food, instruct them in gardening and cooking, and help school food directors get more local food into schools (including, sometimes, the very produce kids grow themselves). And countless individual teachers bring their own passion for gardening and cooking into public schools.
But these programs—while an amazing start—are piecemeal attempts to reverse decades of food illiteracy and lack of basic cooking skills amongst American kids. Every time she leads one of these workshops, Hyde sees a dire need for basic nutrition education. “Kids don’t even know what fiber or protein is. They don’t know what vitamins are. They don’t know how to read an ingredient list. They don’t know anything!”
In recent weeks, Michelle Obama has shown how fierce she can be when it comes to leading on policy issues related to her Let’s Move! campaign. Last week, she announced new federal standards on junk food marketing in public schools as well as proposed changes to the nutrition facts labels, requiring added sugar to be listed for the first time, and calories-per-serving to be listed in a larger font.
But if she’s really serious about ending childhood obesity within a generation, she might consider supporting a home economics program for the 21st century. It’s an idea Dammeier and Hyde can get behind. “You can’t just plop down a salad bar,” says Hyde. “You need to inspire kids to cook—not just lecture them about labels.”
Everyone from Tom Philpott at Mother Jones to academics writing in the op-ed pages of the New York Times have already called for more, better home ec in schools. Earlier this month, Chef Ann Cooper (aka the “renegade lunch lady”), made an impassioned plea at Tedx Manhattan for integrating food literacy into academic curriculums. “If we want to fix the food system, if we want healthy kids, and a healthy planet, our next great battle is food literacy in every school in America.”