CDC research suggests that nutrition education in many U.S. schools needs improvement, but experts also point out that healthy eating options have increased in schools across the country. Photo by Tim Lauer/USDA/Wikimedia
Dec. 5 (UPI) -- A new report suggests that urban school districts in the United States lag behind their counterparts in other parts of the country in food and nutrition education.
While the majority of U.S. schools offer curriculum on the benefits of healthy eating and dietary guidelines, the percentage of urban classrooms in which these subjects are taught is significantly lower, according to the 2018 School Health Profiles Report, released this month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For example, just over 60 percent of schools in Boston and just over half the schools in Oakland, Calif., report that they teach children the benefits of healthy eating. Nationally, the median percentage of schools offering instruction in these subjects is 94 percent. For city school districts, this figure drops to 88 percent.
"Not enough people in these communities advocate for their children and say, 'Enough. We need to help our children eat healthier and live better lives,'" Vel Scott, an activist and educator on diet and nutrition in Cleveland, told UPI. "We're seeing more and more of our kids being diagnosed with diabetes and obesity, and food is a catalyst that can change a neighborhood and a community."
However, it seems not enough students are getting this message. Even in districts where the importance of healthy food is listed as part of the curriculum, far too little classroom time, perhaps as little as five hours per academic year, is devoted to the issue, experts say.
"Health education has never been a priority in American schools," said Lorrene Ritchie, director of the Nutrition Policy Institute at the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Oakland. "We don't teach children how to read, write or do math in one period in the ninth grade, but that's what we do with food and other health issues. So it's not shocking we're in dire straits when it comes to nutrition."
The scope of the problem
According to CDC statistics, some 14 million children and adolescents, or 18.5 percent of the total population in these age groups, meet the criteria for obesity. Notably, the prevalence of obesity is even higher among children from low-income households, with nearly 20 percent of kids in families earning just above the federal poverty level -- $25,750 per year for a family of four -- or less meeting the criteria.
Evidence suggests that these higher levels of obesity may be attributable to shortcomings in education relating to diet and nutrition -- that while schools may offer courses in these subjects, not all require students take them.
Less than half the schools in many cities make nutrition education a requirement, and it varies widely. According to the study, in Baltimore, 48.7 percent have a requirement; in Boston, 29.4 percent; in Cleveland, 31 percent; in Detroit, 29.6 percent; in Oakland, none; in Orange County, Fla., 46.9 percent; in Palm Beach County, Fla., 41.5 percent; in Philadelphia, 39.3 percent; in San Diego, 26.9 percent; and in San Francisco, it's 41.1 percent.
"When you look at how many of these schools are actually teaching these subjects to the level they should be, the numbers are even worse," Ritchie said. "So there's room for improvement across the board, not just in inner-city schools but in all schools."
"When you think about the volume of topics that schools need to cover in health education -- sexual health, tobacco, drug and alcohol use -- to cover something as complex as nutrition is super challenging," added Vicki Collie-Akers, an associate professor in the Department of Population Health at the University of Kansas.
Food for thought
On the other hand, the CDC report highlights many significant accomplishments as well. For example, the median percentage of schools across the county that don't "sell unhealthy snacks and beverages in vending machines and other places" has increased from 36.6 percent in 2008 to 53.7 percent in 2018.
In addition, nearly 80 percent of school cafeterias place fruits and vegetables in "easy-to-see" locations, like near cashiers, while nearly half offer self-serve salad bars.
"These are steps in the right direction," Collie-Akers said. "Really, we need to think about the way we price and promote healthy food options. In many places, a candy bar is cheaper than a piece of fruit. And that needs to change. We need to find ways to help kids choose better food options."
Ritchie proposes taking food education one step further, by making it part of the standardized tests schools use to measure learning performance and knowledge gaps.
"I'm not a fan of standardized tests, but we use them to gauge how well students understand math and language, so why not food?" she said. "That may be the only way to make sure it's being taught."
Big picture, small stomachs
Scott agrees. She spent the early part of her life on a farm in Vicksburg, Miss., where her family grew vegetables year round, and developed "a healthy perspective on food." Still, it wasn't until her husband, Don, was diagnosed with high blood pressure in the late 1980s, that she and her family changed their eating habits.
Now the couple run a three-acre urban farm, called the Purple Oasis, and she has formed the non-profit New Image Life Skills Academy and Healthy You Institute to pass along the knowledge she's gained, not only in Cleveland but across the country.
Kids who eat better, she said, do better in school and are better behaved both in class and at home, an observation that Ritchie and Collie-Akers noted is borne out in studies on diet and physical activity among young people.
"I've never been anywhere near a medical school, but I've seen what being healthier can do with my own eyes," Scott said. "But when it comes to teaching kids, you can't just go in there and say, 'I'm going to show you how to eat and how to live.' You're not going to get anywhere. You have to connect with them and empower them, their parents and even their grandparents. You need to give them the tools to do it for themselves."