How Do We Change the Food System? Start Early!

Food Day is bringing attention to children learning about where their food comes in farm-to-school and environment-based curricula. (Willem Velthoven / Flickr)

On October 24th, U.S. Food Day, the organization Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is bringing attention to four key areas in which food system change needs to begin: in food education, food and health, schools, and college campuses.

The good news is that youth around the United States are already stepping up to the plate to change the food system for the better. Children are learning about where their food comes in farm-to-school and environment-based curricula; high school and college students are implementing programs to spread knowledge about food sustainability and preventing food waste among their peers; and young adults are transforming the face of farming.

Last week, Food Tank spoke with Courtney White, Director of Education with the Rainforest Alliance, about the environmental sustainability-focused educational program that the organization has implemented with great success in a Florida school district. When it comes to recognizing role that we can all play in creating a more sustainable the food system, White put it succinctly: “Children get it so much faster than the adults do.”

As the United States celebrates Food Day, Food Tank recognizes five ways American youth – from young children to young adults – are shaking up the food system.

1. Becoming more knowledgeable about sustainable food systems in creative ways.

The National Association of State Boards of Education reports that students who develop an interest in arts at a young age benefit from heightened brain development, and tend to outperform other students in reading and mathematics. Creative, artistic ways for children to explore food system issues – through film, visual arts, or music – are effective places to start food education.

  • The young protagonists of What’s on Your Plate bring attention to the problems in the food system through the eyes of two 11-year-old girls. The film follows Sadie and Safiyah as they set out on a quest to learn more about what goes into their food, where it comes from, and who creates it. What’s on Your Plate has also been published as a book.
  • As part of the Seed Division project at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast, Maine, students run a community garden. They also create original prints for the seed packets that they sell to the community.
  • Food Fight, a music video from Earth Amplified, hits home for kids in urban areas with limited access to fresh produce – and also serves as a platform to learn more about the importance of healthy food.
2. Learning about the connection between food and health.

On average, U.S. students get less than four hours of food education per year. Millions of kids aren’t learning about the importance of fresh, nutritious food at home or at school, making it almost impossible for them to be healthy adults.

  • Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution is spreading to classrooms across the United States to make school food more wholesome and nutritious, and in doing so, teaching children about nutrition firsthand. By getting children interested in cooking and taking initiative in making food for themselves, the Food Revolution is cultivating a new generation of food activists.
  • As part of the federally run AmeriCorps Network, FoodCorps service members work with local organizations to enhance the level of nutrition education in schools, engage students directly with their food through school garden projects and coordinate farm-to-school programs that bring local farmers and educators together to transform cafeterias into educational environments.
3. Incorporating food education into school curricula

Bringing elements of education about the environment and the food system into standard subjects has proven benefits. The Rainforest Alliance reports that its students scored higher than control groups in 60 percent of target reading comprehension areas, and 100 percent of science achievement indicators, with low-income schools particularly outperforming the control schools.

  • After implementing its environmental sustainability-based general education curriculum in an entire Florida school district, the Rainforest Alliance has also made its lesson plans available online for any school that wants to incorporate information about environmental health and conservation into the standard math, reading, science, and social studies lessons. Students in the program have developed a passion for environmental issues and sustainable food systems.
  • In collaboration with Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, Food Day has designed a curriculum of five lesson plans to teach children about the source of their food – and what makes it organic, what makes it healthy, and what makes it sustainable.
4. Founding initiatives to address issues in the food system on college campuses

In 1996, the Steinhardt School at New York University achieved state accreditation for its food studies master’s program, and since then, new programs in food studies have been popping up at schools across the country. Not only are institutions of higher learning focusing attention on food sustainability in the classroom, but students are founding on-campus initiatives of their own to address pressing issues in the food system.

  • The Food Recovery Network started as a group of enterprising University of Maryland students who decided to take action against food waste by delivering cafeteria leftovers to local food shelters. It has expanded to 11 chapters on campuses across the U.S. Students involved in the Food Recovery Network visit their campus dining halls nightly to rescue leftover food and deliver it to local shelters and food pantries.
  • The Hamilton College Community Farm is operated entirely by a student association. The farm acts not only as a source of food, but also an educational resource for any student, faculty member, or member of the Hamilton, NY community, and includes a replica of a kitchen garden from the early 19th century.
5. The next step: getting involved in agriculture

The most recent USDA Agricultural Census found that the average age of the American farmer is 57 years old, and that the percentage of farmers under the age of 25 decreased by 30 percent between 2002 and 2007 alone. However, young farmers across the country are returning to fields and barns, making headway in reversing these trends.

  • The Greenhorns is a grassroots initiative creating a supportive network of young farmers across the United States. Founded by Severine von Tscharner Fleming, the coalition works to organize the young farmer community into a united force, and help them to broadcast their message through the mass media.
  • The National Farmers’ Union Beginning Farmer Institute helps young farmers develop the skills they need to operate a profitable farm. The Institute supports early-career farmers as they become better versed in leadership and farm management.
  • In Milwaukee and Chicago, Growing Power is working with youth to cultivate healthy, wholesome food on urban farms. Growing Power focuses on sustainable farming techniques, including vermicompost and natural pest control methods.
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