Organic. Good fats. Bad fats. All natural. Cage free. Free range.
For those who value nutritious and humanely produced food, a trip to the grocery store can require a dictionary to help figure out just what is meant by the promises on a label. It is no longer just about fat and calories.
People want to believe that the foods they are putting into their bodies are both good for them and the environment, and there is no shortage of new buzzwords designed to capitalize on that feeling.
But often the terms can be confusing. So that while an item labeled “certified organic” must meet specific requirements set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, products called “all natural” require no such regulation. An “all natural” product could be at the same level as an organic one, or it could contain high-fructose corn syrup, for example. So a shopper in a rush may be likely to grab a product labeled “all natural” and feel good about the nutritional makeup of the choice.
What we have is a food market that increasingly requires an educated consumer. At the same time, the country’s health-care system is moving toward a more preventative approach, one that recognizes the importance of better nutrition. And the benefits of local food production and consumption, from more vibrant local businesses to decreases in fossil fuel use, are clear.
These three developments are intertwined, and it is imperative that our educational system provides students with the opportunities to learn these lessons and make these connections for themselves.
Fortunately, in many school systems, that already is taking place. The nutrition director at Cape Elizabeth schools has revamped the menu served to students, taking away french fries and burgers and adding whole-wheat dough to the pizza. The high school also invites a local chef to the cafeteria each month to show students that delicious and healthy are not mutually exclusive.
It’s happening in other schools, as well. At Bonny Eagle Middle School in Buxton, an on-campus greenhouse provides students with fresh produce, and shows them the connection between what goes in the soil and what goes on their plate. After a while, it is hoped, unhealthy food, processed until it bares little resemblance to its origin, will lose its appeal.
And in Windham, the high school’s wellness program, a curriculum that combines nutrition, exercise, mental health and everyday financial acumen, has been recognized nationally for helping to reshape the way students think about their overall health.
More of that is needed. Students need to exit high school with a working knowledge of the most up-to-date nutritional science. It is a challenge, since the science is developing at a fast rate, and tight budgets do not allow for a lot of extras, if any.
But it is a gap that can be filled with creativity. In the cases mentioned above, local farmers, chefs, and others knowledgeable in the field of nutrition have been willing to offer their time to local schools. Administrators have to be flexible to allow for this kind of instruction.
As demonstrated in Cape Elizabeth, a lot of it can even happen in the lunchroom.