2011 Blog Action Day: Feeding Our Youth

This year’s Blog Action Day post comes from guest author, Marilyn Maciel – she lives in Davis, California where she has witnessed firsthand the benefits of school gardens, a garden-based curriculum and a visiting chefs program. You can reach her at Twitter at @MarilynM

Recently I read a story about a Kenya Red Cross volunteer who has spent months cooking a maize and water porridge for lunch at a school in northern Kenya. The children arrive at the school with empty stomachs, having not had dinner or breakfast at home. The porridge is their only meal. If they don’t attend school, they don’t eat. As a result, the school has not closed in 2011 since the lunch program began.

In the United States we often read or see stories about places overseas that are trying to cope with devastating hunger. We pull out our checkbooks or credit cards to make donations to organizations that are trying to help. But how often do Americans stop to think about the kids in our own cities, towns and neighborhoods who are going to school hungry?

As of the 2010 U.S. Census, 46 million Americans were living below the poverty line and 16 million of them were children under the age of 18. And yet increasingly we see budgets for social service programs slashed at both the state and federal levels.

Schoolchildren in the United States can qualify for free or reduced-price meals through national school breakfast and lunch programs. But what about their time outside of school hours? A year ago Washington, DC public schools began offering an early dinner program to 10,000 of their students. The city joined 13 states who already had early supper programs that are funded by the Child & Adult Care Food Program.

Hunger has a debilitating effect on learning. Serving hungry kids an extra meal after school is important, but what about weekends, summer breaks and school holidays? And simply feeding them is not enough. There’s a move toward healthier school food programs, but all too often kids are eating cafeteria meals that are about as nutritious as the ones we serve in our prisons.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2008 more than one-third of U.S. children and adolescents were overweight and obese. Childhood obesity has tripled in the last 30 years. First Lady Michelle Obama is to be commended for launching the Let’s Move! program with its Eat Healthy component. Mrs. Obama’s voice on this issue has been a vibrant call to action to get our nation’s kids involved in physical activity, planting gardens and choosier healthier foods.

Children in poverty often live in so-called food deserts, where access to affordable fresh produce and healthier food options is severely limited and sometimes non-existent. But it’s not just access to fresh food that’s a problem, we must also make sure that kids are familiar with fresh fruits and vegetables that may not be a part of their regular diet. One of the ways we can do that is through school and community gardens and garden-based curriculum.

School gardens can provide valuable lesson material in a wide variety of subjects: geography, history, social studies, science, math, foreign languages. Visiting chef programs add an additional layer of learning when students are taught to prepare dishes using ingredients grown in the school garden. The First Lady’s program includes Chefs Move! to Schools which encourages chefs to adopt a local school and work with teachers and parents to teach kids about nutrition. We must not just feed our children–we must feed them fresh, healthy, nutritious food.

On this 2011 Blog Action Day, what can we do? The first thing we can do is to educate ourselves about what’s happening in our own communities. Research poverty statistics in your county at this USDA site. (You might be surprised by what you learn.) Learn more about the food programs in your local schools. Find out what food assistance programs your community offers for schoolchildren outside of school hours. Learn where your local school and community gardens are and volunteer at one. Donate to your local food bank. Let’s Move! offers 5 Simple Steps to Success for parents, schools, elected officials, community leaders, chefs, kids and health care providers.

It’s Blog Action Day. Take action!

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