I asked Anika, a third-grade student at a public school in the Midwest, why it’s important for kids to eat healthy. After a moment of contemplation, she responded, “Because if kids grow up eating unhealthy food they will feed their kids unhealthy food.” Truth spoken from an eight-year-old brought tears to my eyes. What are we teaching our kids about food choices?
Coinciding with a rise in health issues in recent decades, we established palates for processed, low-quality foods. We created a world where nearly every box and can lining the grocery store shelves contains sugar and where most of the ingredients are unrecognizable. We removed the soil from the hands of children leading them to believe the life of lettuce starts at the grocery store.
How do we reverse this trend and begin feeding ourselves to live well and connected?
In consumer surveys, price is most often cited as the most significant barrier to eating a healthier diet. Research from Harvard School of Public Health proves that a healthy diet costs more than unhealthy diets. However, the increase of $1.50 per day pales in comparison to what we spend on the medical industry. Time, convenience, ability, equipment, and availability round out the lists of barriers to purchasing healthy foods. All valid and challenging reasons but imagine what it would look like in our families and communities if we found a way to break the cycle of unhealthy eating.
Working in kitchens as a chef the past 35 years I’ve developed a mantra – reduce waste to buy better food – that guides my life and business. Inspired by the ideas that all kids deserve healthy meals that taste good and that schools offer the greatest opportunity to change the way children eat, I began a quest to study time and product waste as a means of finding more money to purchase quality ingredients.
The process of buying fresh, nutritious foods from local farmers created a more connected, healthy community, improved the local economy, and supported sustainable land use for the region. At an academically rigorous private catholic school for girls in Buffalo, New York, the cafeteria monitor maintained complete control of well-behaved students eating quietly and following all rules, until the day we replaced their processed, canned food with fresh baked chicken, mashed potatoes, and steamed broccoli full of flavor from being freshly harvested and delivered with love from nearby farmers. On this day, the entire student body stormed the cafeteria line for seconds, disregarding any order previously maintained.
At an inner-city school on the east side of Buffalo where 100% of the kids qualified for the free federal meal program, I met a couple of long time farmers in their 80th year of life selling grass-fed, humanely raised beef at a winter farmers market while freezing temperatures and several feet of snow kept most farmers at home cozy in their homes. After agreeing to grind whole cows for the school on a monthly basis, the farmers brought their first delivery to the back door of the cafeteria. The cooks, starving for connection to the people who grew the food they were later to serve, brought the farmers to the kitchen to feed them, laugh together, and discover their story. The farmers established an outlet for guaranteed sales and everyone made new friends in the process.
With inspiring food comes inspiring ideas to create a more equitable world for everyone. This year I worked with staff and students at Mililani High School in Hawai‘i – one school cafeteria out of 256 in the system – to create a farm to school program. The students wanted healthy and culturally relevant meals. They wanted fresh fruits instead of canned fruits. And they wanted the food to taste good.
After countless surveys and taste tests, we developed a kid-approved menu featuring scratch-cooked, nutritious, locally grown foods. With this new menu came a connection to the place where they lived. Eyes opened to farms, people, and opportunities in the community all along and never seen before. Hearts opened to helping create a better community, and teams came together to accomplish more with a renewed intention for serving the people.
By engaging in the process of determining the meals and learning about the food system, a group of students at Mililani High School began a quest of their own to make sure every student in the state would be fed the same healthy, quality breakfasts and lunches. The students started a petition and with thousands of signatures, they knocked on the doors of the state capitol building asking every government representative to support the program. The students wrote speeches and stood in front of every stakeholder in the food system demanding solutions to improve the food for all students. In class, culinary students studied federal meal standards to develop and cook school meals, math students learned statistics by using cafeteria nutritional data, and student groups learned about farms in their community from local leaders.
By giving students better food, they developed a deeper connection with their community and broadened their world to caring about the well-being of others. They didn’t sit at home hoping someone would make it better. Instead, they rose up and went to work. One student commented, “I have always wanted to be a part of something big in our school and the Farm to School initiative has done just that for me. I am so glad to know that I am leaving my high school with a legacy that impacts the entire community.”
Whether in the home, school, hospital, restaurant, or any other place where people eat, opportunities abound to reduce waste and serve food that’s good for families, communities, and the economy. How can your food inspire a better world?