Last fall at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, in the heart of Arlington County, Virginia, students rallied around their beloved garden when it was threatened by potential new construction that would have paved over the small plot of land on which they grow vegetables for the Arlington Food Assistance Center. Arlington magazine called it “a little garden with big impact” and chronicled the impression this garden has made on the students, one-third of whom are Hispanic. They had never grown vegetables before and had a limited palate when it came to eating them.
Children are known for turning up their noses at vegetables, yet eating nutrient-rich, high-fiber produce is critical to maintaining good health, keeping up energy levels, and preventing childhood obesity, which is reaching record numbers in the U.S. More than 38 percent of Latinos between the ages of two and 19 are overweight or obese, leading to increased risks for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and breathing problems.
The momentum behind prioritizing childhood nutrition is growing. Research shows how important good nutrition is to children’s health and their ability to do well in school. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act seeks to improve nutrition for millions of children. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued new nutrition standards that boost the amount of fruit and vegetables in its Child Nutrition Programs.
NCLR joins with the USDA and the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) to urge more families to participate in federal child nutrition programs that provide healthy meals in school to children from low-income families. Many Latino kids who are eligible for these important programs do not participate in them because their parents may not know about them or do not know how to enroll.
USDA offers information and an application form in many languages, including Spanish. Eligible children can obtain, at no cost, breakfast, an afternoon meal, and snacks in school every day, in addition to lunch. FRAC has more information available in English and Spanish.
Thanks to the new USDA nutrition standards, students may be offered smoothies made with yogurt and fresh or frozen fruit. They may see salad bars in schools and even a baked potato bar or side salad options. Protein from meat, beans, and dairy is also an important part of school meals, but it takes a back seat to produce. Breakfast and after-school meals and snacks are just as nutritious as school lunches, featuring whole grains, fresh produce, and foods low in sodium and sugar. The afternoon snacks and meals provided through the USDA have been shown to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, milk, and key nutrients.
How can we encourage children to make healthy choices whether they are at home, at school, or in an out-of-school program? Here are some ideas for parents and other caregivers:
- Serve fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen, or canned) as options instead of cake, cookies, candy and chips.
- Offer water as the preferred drink option during snack times instead of juices, punch boxes, or soda.
- Reinforce messages about good health by ensuring children get daily exercise that includes age-appropriate fitness activities.
- Demonstrate strong social support for healthy behaviors.
The student gardeners at Thomas Jefferson Middle School have spoken passionately about keeping their treasured garden now that they have discovered the joys of green beans and okra. It doesn’t take growing vegetables to become committed to healthy eating, though. With high nutrition standards in our school meals programs, students nationwide can become fans of green leafy veggies, fruit smoothies, and other delicious, wholesome, and nutritious foods!
This blog post was made possible with a grant from ConAgra Foundation through FRAC.