Food Insecurity is a Barrier to Education
Food insecurity is a growing problem in public schools, including college campuses. In a nation that was once considered the bread basket of the world, even prominent media like the Washington Post are making note of growing food insecurity on campus. Authors of a recent study out of West Virginia University (Reported in Nutrients. 2018 Mar; 10(3): 361) noted that as many as 13 percent of Americans were food insecure in 2015, and that food insecurity is associated with poor health, lower academic performance, and higher rates of mental health and substance abuse disorders. We simply cannot expect students to excel when they are undernourished. Clearly, there is a need to put the horse before the cart, and address fundamental food security needs that leave too many children behind.
Food Insecurity is Not Just a Matter of Inadequate Fuel
Too often, efforts to address food insecurity focus on simple attempts to provide more food. School lunch programs, introduced in the 1940’s by Harry Truman, have repeatedly failed to ensure student access to enough safe and nutritious food to ensure a healthy lifestyle, for the simple reason that these programs have emphasized meeting student caloric needs with processed foods available through commodity programs. Nutrition is about more than simple calories.
As schools have become more consolidated, and both agriculture and food processing industries have become more industrialized, food quality in schools has deteriorated. Unfortunately, nutrition tends to be a controversial subject that puts nutritional health experts at odds with the medical community and popular diet programs at odds with eachother. The controversy likely stems in part from the fact that nutritional health experts tend to begin their discussion of nutrition with foods as they are presented in the supermarket. This is inadequate, since the nutritional content of even so-called whole foods is seriously compromised by the variable health of farm soils, and by shipping, handling, and storage practices implemented between the farm and the supermarket. While labeling requirements make it easy to determine the amounts of listed nutrients in a food item, the majority of vitamins and minerals a person needs for healthy living simply are not listed on most food labels. When was the last time your label told you how much molybdenum was in your green beans?
Food Lessons Taught By Intent or By Omission May Be Permanent
Because so many habits developed early in life become ingrained in our culture, poor nutritional and dietary habits in food insecure school lunch settings may become engrained in our culture, and follow us long after we leave school. In the podcast below, Tony Prangner Jr. and I discussed some of the cultural and emotional ties to food, the pressures in and beyond school settings that contribute to poor eating choices, and the need to move the dialog about nutrition from the labels on the back of a package to a more holistic understanding of where food comes from, and how it is produced. Even outside the classroom, eating right can be challenging, since few Americans truly have access to fresh, whole foods grown on healthy soils that contain all the mineral nutrients our bodies need to thrive. The good news is, Americans everywhere are waking up to the need for stronger food systems, and recognizing that better food starts with better knowledge about food.
School Gardens Offer More than Simple Nutrition
The need to learn more about where food comes from has prompted growing interest in school gardens. Once considered a novel trend, like phonics, gardens are becoming commonplace, not only in cities as prominent as Dallas and Denver, but also in underserved schools like Bowie High School near the Mexican Border in El Paso, Texas, and the Magdalena School District in rural New Mexico. These gardens not only provide fresh whole foods on site for students, they also provide students with the hands on experience that helps them better understand where food comes from, and how to produce it. Even more importantly, gardening in school helps students recognize food production as a socially acceptable task, on par with reading, writing, and arithmetic in terms of contributing to success. Gardens also have a way of attracting members of the community to help. For example, many master gardeners, volunteers trained by agricultural extension agents to provide expertise in gardening, lend hours of service to school gardens. These community volunteers offer students exposure to role models who value local food production.
Growth of the Nutraceutical Industry
Another solution once deemed trendy is seen in the rapid growth of the nutraceutical industry. Although some physicians, dieticians, and nutritionists continue to insist that a healthy diet will provide all the nutrients a person needs to stay heatlhy, the general public is increasingly recognizing the reality that healthy foods are hard to come by. Pesticides used in agriculture can chelate valuable mineral nutrients and leave residues that compromise human digestive and metabolic processes important for making nutrients available to our cells. Sanitization processes designed to eliminate food pathogens also reduce the number of beneficial microbes and active enzymes that work to cycle nutrients, such that even nutrients present in food may become unavailable to the consumer. As awareness of these concerns grows, people are turning to nutraceucticals to provide vitamins, minerals, and cofactors that supplement those present in their diet. In 2018, MarketWatch projected a 319.6 billion dollar market for supplements.
These Steps Can Ensure Your Student is Getting the Nutrients S/he Needs
At the end of the day, industry trends come and go. What is important to most of us as individuals, parents and grandparents is that ourselves and our loved ones are getting the nutrients we need. When guiding school children, who are subject to influence by peers and school administrations, your own influence will be challenged. Nonetheless, you have the advantage. Afterall, you see your child daily. By modeling great eating and supplementation habits at home, you show your child that nutritional health matters. These steps will reduce the risk the your child experiences food insecurity:
1-Model good eating habits at home, and discuss nutrition often.
2-Pack lunches and send children to school with healthy food in tow. Yes, I realize this can be unpopular. Your child may toss the food in the trash when his or her friend asks, “Why are you eating that?” But at least you have sent the message that you expect your child to eat well. Don’t rely on school subsidies and commodity programs to guide your child’s health.
3-Provide balanced, whole food, biologically derived supplements that your body can absorb. While many experts will insist that you only take those nutrients you are deficient in, continually testing for all essential nutrients is impractical. Although it is possible to overdose on anything, the odds of overdosing on whole food, biologically derived supplements are quite slim. Yes, I recognize this is one of those controversial statements. The FDA has not approved it, and as a biologist with advanced training in cell biology and toxicology, I have no license or certificate that authorizes me to tell you how much of a vitamin is safe. So I am not going to prescribe anything here. I’ve just stated an opinion, and I will let you do your own homework.
4-Keep a garden, and tend to your soil. If you are new to soil health principles, you can find the basics in my online course, Building Better Soils.
5-Watch your child and make note of health indicators, like energy, mood, and sleep patterns. When noticeable problems appear, turn to the nutrition expert first, moving to the medical doctor only when conditions are severe or urgent. Use common sense here. If a hospital is clearly in order, don’t wait. But by treating minor conditions with good nutrition, you will find that more severe situations rarely arise. If your child is not sleeping well, coming home moody and depressed, overly agitated, or unable to focus on homework under normal levels of stress, take a good look at the diet and supplement routine. Maybe you need to eliminate sugar or gluten. Maybe you need to buy more organic foods. Maybe you need a better multivitamin. One of my biggest regrets with my own children was that I relied on conventional cooking and dining, and I did not take supplements seriously until my children were in their teens. We spent a lot of hours in doctors offices that could have been prevented with better diets and better supplement routines.
6-If your school does not already have a garden, choose another school, or work within the school community to create one and support it.
7-Become a nutrition scholar. Give up a few evening reality shows and sports events, and use that time to learn how to grow, select, and prepare food that builds good health.
8-Meet the farmers in your region, and buy direct from those who can demonstrate good soil health.
9-Talk to your children regularly about the role of good nutrition in academic and athletic performance.