Highlights of Obesity and the Built Environment: Improving Public Health Through Community Design

Kristin Richardson


August 24, 2004

In This Article

Transforming Toxic Classrooms Into Gardens

The National School Lunch Act was signed in 1946 to create the school lunch program, a program largely driven by health problems traced to Depression-era nutritional deficiencies in military recruits. Since that time, this program, which was conceived to "promote health and prevent disease," has been subject to pressures from other quarters. In most school districts, the food service is the only department that must be at least "revenue neutral" -- if it doesn't make money it must, at a minimum, cover its costs. This financial squeeze has led to decisions such as shutting down school kitchens and contracting out food services to fast-food chains, installing vending machines stocked with sodas and high-fat snack foods, signing exclusive contracts with brand-name food producers, and planning cafeteria menus to attract students living in a fast-food culture.

Alex Molnar, PhD,[4] Arizona State University, Tempe, discussed how this trend has spread from the cafeteria to the classroom, creating a situation in which "advertisers take advantage of the enormous social investment we have made in our schools for their own financial benefit and to the harm of school children." If "marketing is the curriculum of our culture," Dr. Molnar said, "corporate America has effectively turned teachers and principals into agents for advertisers" through educational materials sponsored by fast-food companies, fundraisers that sell candy, and "pouring contracts" with soda companies to fund gyms. All this occurs in a context in which schools are asked to do more with less, and the test-centered educational climate produced by the No Child Left Behind Act puts pressure on programs that are perceived as optional, such as music and physical education.

Robert Gottlieb, PhD,[5] Occidental College, Los Angeles, California, offered one way out of this bind through what he called a "new kind of social movement that contains the seeds of transformation" -- Farm to School Programs. In these programs, locally sourced fresh food from small- to medium-sized farms is incorporated into school lunches, salad bars, and snacks. These programs are often augmented by school gardens and visits to local farms, so children not only learn what fresh food tastes like, they gain a working understanding of how it is produced, learn important nutritional lesions first-hand, and get some exercise in the garden as a bonus. These programs also benefit local farmers, generating local sales and a sense of value in the community -- which just might mean that they won't have to sell out to local developers and contribute to obesity-promoting urban sprawl. The response has been overwhelming, and demonstrates, Dr. Gottlieb said, that when school kids are given an informed choice, they will choose fresh, healthful foods. These programs are also models of institutional, community, and policy change that "link social and environmental justice with food access and community health."


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