Tennessee ranks fourth nationally in childhood obesity. The Volunteer State’s food culture — like that of most Southern states, focused on fatty and fried meals — couples in a perfect confluence with a more sedentary society at large.
It’s not good, and not just for the obvious reasons like an increase in heart disease, diabetes and other health problems incumbent with obesity — health problems in which Tennessee already outpaces much of the rest of the country.
Stunting the growth of an ever-overweight population will require a significant change in the way we eat and live, which means starting good habits at a young age. But kids, of course, spend a third of their day at school and likewise eat a third of their meals in cafeterias.
The stereotypical school lunches — rectangular pizzas, mountains of chicken nuggets and pounds of french fries — aren’t exactly pillars of a healthy meal. So Alignment Nashville, a group of community organizations joined up to aid Metro schools, is addressing the problem head on. The group has formed a School Nutrition Advisory Committee composed of parents, school administrators, Metro Schools’ food service staff, and representation from nonprofits and local growers to develop creative ways to increase healthy options on the lunch trays.
The committee’s work is just under way, and things are still in the study phase. SNAC (an appropriate acronym if one ever existed) grew out of an informal group of people already involved in other sectors of Alignment’s work who saw a problem that needed addressing.
Shavaun Evans of Community Food Advocates chairs SNAC. She works with CFA’s Growing Healthy Kids initiative — a national program that, like SNAC, is committed to reaching kids early and creating a culture of nutritionally sound food choices.
Evans said the first move is simple: ensuring school cafeterias provide healthy options alongside the greasy lunchtime staples. She said it’s important that kids who get as much as half their daily caloric intake at school are offered healthy choices. As noted in a Jan. 17 City Paper cover story, many of Nashville’s poorest neighborhoods qualify as “food deserts,” areas with few full-service grocery stores, which can make it nearly impossible for children to regularly eat healthy options at home.
Evans said that makes it imperative that schools provide high-quality foods.
“More wholesome, less processed food items, more fresh fruits and vegetables, possibly salad bars,” she said.
Getting students to “eat right” is the first goal, but getting them to eat local is also achievable, with the added benefit of helping local producers and ultimately keeping costs down, Evans said. And in some cases, eating local could mean very local, indeed.
Metro Parks’ GROW Nashville group advocates for community gardens, and a handful of those are already on Metro schools’ grounds, including at J.T. Moore Middle on Granny White Pike and at Park Avenue School in Sylvan Heights, for example. J.T. Moore students eat produce from the school’s community garden on regular “Fresh Fridays.”
Principal Jill Pittman said there’s a dual benefit to the program: Students eat fresh fruits and vegetables, see them prepared and learn about where food comes from, making the program a nutritional and educational plus. It also introduces students to new foods: Pittman noted a day where the “Fresh Friday” selection was Swiss chard, a leafy root vegetable more likely to be seen in salads at multi-star restaurants than alongside cheeseburgers in the lunch line.
Showing students the raw product creates “educated future consumers,” Pittman said, making it more likely that, as adults, students will eschew the easy fast-food options (the wheelhouse of school lunches for decades) for the greener, leafier choices.
Ultimately, though, there is a funding question to be answered.
Stretched thin already, the Metro school district would find it fiscally tough to foster a culture of localvores. That’s where Alignment comes in. The eight-year-old group serves as a sort of clearinghouse for nonprofits to connect with schools, bundling grants, streamlining connections and preventing duplication.
For example, Evans’ Growing Healthy Kids has developed curricula for various age groups related to food and nutrition.
“There’s a gardening lesson plan for first- and second-graders,” she said. “There’s more in-depth lesson plans about justice and food policy for high school kids.”
Evans’ group also has a guide to starting a garden like those at J.T. Moore. But Growing Healthy Kids doesn’t have much background in the actual nuts-and-bolts of school food; hence, MNPS food service representatives serve as advisers. Big-dollar donors affiliated with Alignment fill the funding gap.
It’s a collaborative model that Alignment’s Executive Director Sydney Rogers said has already paid dividends in other areas of school policy. Rogers pointed to the success of the district’s high school academies as an example, backed from the start by Alignment’s experts and donors.
For now, SNAC is a meeting of the minds, with work just getting started this month. For the rest of the school year, the group will study what works and doesn’t. Members will make connections with local producers, the food-service personnel on the front lines, teachers, parents and administrators. Evans said she hopes to have a full-scale recommendation ready when the kids head back to school after the summer break.
When that happens, public school students may see more Swiss chard and less Swiss steak.