While recent federal guidelines have made efforts to make food served in schools healthier, some Takoma Park students and residents believe there is still more that can be done to encourage healthy eating in schools.
Farmer Michael Tabor, who owns Licking Creek Bend Farm in Takoma Park, said that advocating the food pyramid “just doesn’t work because kids are bombarded with the worst choices,” and unless parents care, he said children would not choose healthy food over junk food.
But, eighth grade students at Takoma Park Middle School are taking the initiative to improve their own health education through participating in a group called the Healthy Eating Club that meets weekly during their lunch period.
Co-founders of the club, Janice McRae, the eighth grade counselor for the school, and Lisa Kowalewski, the community health nurse, said they started the group about three years ago. This year, at least 50 students expressed interest in joining the club, but they could only fit 15 members.
Albright Afenjo, 12, said although most students her age do not eat healthy, the club is trying to change that.
“It’s not like they don’t care; it’s kind of hard [to eat healthy] … I think this club kind of helps us share the news that people can eat healthy and … any healthy thing can taste good,” she said.
She also applied what she learned from the club at home. In one meeting, the club made a smoothie that had spinach as one of the ingredients. Afenjo then told her mother about it, and they shared the recipe with the whole family – without telling the other kids there was spinach in it.
Other schools in the area have different programs to encourage healthy eating at home. One is called the Smart Snacks Intiative, which provides healthy meals for students to take home on the weekends. In Bethesda, one school has an open lunch program so students can leave school to choose their own lunches.
See what other area schools are doing to promote healthy eating by reading our Lunch Lessons series.
In a typical Healthy Eating Club session, the students make a simple healthy snack and learn about each component of the snack and the health benefits. They also learn about different ways to exercise.
In recent years the school introduced a salad bar, which has since expanded its variety of fruits and vegetables. Mohamed Abdelaziz, 13, said he gets food from the salad bar once or twice a week, but it takes peer encouragement.
“If one of our friends go, it usually encourages all of us to go, and we usually end up going and getting salad or a fruit salad,” he said. “The salad bar is good because it gives us options. You can get whatever you want; there’s a variety.”
Fellow member Eyobed Beyene, 13, noticed that sometimes students do not finish the healthier salad bar options.
“There’s this box that people put foods they don’t want on top of the box, and I see a lot of salads there,” he said. Beyene added that his parents encourage healthy eating and shop at farmers markets and the co-op.
Abdelaziz mentioned that eating healthy made him feel more energized.
“One day we made a salad and it had corn, avocado, tomatoes and many other good nutritious things … I had gym after that and it also kept me healthy and I was able to run more,” he said. “I was able to stay active in gym instead of not wanting to participate.”
Tabor said that because public schools are limited by what they spend, it’s difficult to bring them locally grown food. He tries to promote the community supported agriculture program that he participates in, but said he finds it challenging for low-income families to get involved.
"Schools want what is easy [and] what is cheap, unless there is some incentive to them," Tabor said.
“There is a rationale that families from low-income tend to eat unhealthy because the food is so much cheaper, but we have to help students find a way to do so,” McRae said.
Although the school isn’t able to transition to a locally grown food system just yet, the club has many future plans to teach students about living healthier and the origin of the food they consume. Plans include planting more vegetables in the school’s greenhouse in the spring, and partnering with the family and consumer sciences teacher to use produce from the greenhouse in a cooking class. ECO City Farms in Edmonston also teaches students and their parents about how they can incorporate food from farms into their meals.
Saron Alemseged, 13, suggested that the school add some flavor to food that students might consider bland, and at the same time still is healthy.
“There can be fun ways to eat healthy,” she said. “Everyone thinks eating healthy is boring, but there are ways you can eat healthy and have fun at the same time."
Tell Us: How do you think schools should promote healthy eating? Should schools use locally-grown food? Tell us in the comments.