I’m fortunate to spend most of my time around good food. It’s both my job and my passion.
Growing up in Los Angeles, cooking at home with my mom had a big influence on me and started my lifelong love affair with food. My fondest memories include the school lunches my mom packed for us — a peanut butter sandwich on hearty sourdough bread — no jelly and no mushy white bread for the future chef and baker. There was always a piece of fruit, like an apple or an orange or sometimes celery or carrots. And of course, a homemade cookie, which sparked my interest in making better desserts.
Mom was the head dietitian for the Las Virgenes Unified School District where I attended school. She talked about how tight the state budgets were back in the 1990s into the early 2000s and worked hard at keeping sugar-loaded sodas out of schools and pushed to have salad bars.
It wasn’t until later in my culinary career that I began a deeper exploration into the correlation between nutrition and the impact it can have on overall health.
Today, there is a stronger general understanding of how the foods we put in our bodies impact our physical health. We know healthy eating is a key contributor to energy levels and social-emotional development. There is science behind being hangry. Still, studies have shown that over 40% of daily calories consumed by children ages 2-18 are empty, or lacking in any nutrition. Poor nutrition has a significant impact on a child’s ability to focus and can lower cognitive function, which is so important when it comes to learning in school, widening many of the equity gaps that exist particularly in our most underserved communities.
Further, every year, an alarming number of children are diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, obesity and other chronic health-related issues, most of which become lifelong battles. According to the CDC, more than 40% of fourth and seventh graders in our state are considered either overweight or obese. Research has conclusively shown that youth living in underresourced communities have 2.31 times greater odds of being affected by obesity than children living in higher-income homes and are likely to face greater health care challenges than their more affluent peers.
One way to address this gap in nutrition equity is through improved nutrition education in our schools.
I have been a chef activist my entire career, raising money and awareness for many causes, and some of the most important ones to me are the organizations that create change for the future of food. For decades, California has worked to improve eating habits by offering healthier foods on school menus. Yet this is not the stand-alone solution that will drive change in lifelong behavior. Providing access to healthier food options coupled with integrating nutrition education in our school curriculum starting from an early age can equip our youth with knowledge to make better food choices, setting them up to live healthier lives.
We have a generation-changing opportunity to prioritize inclusive nutrition education in our schools to bridge the nutrition equity gap in California because every child should have the resources to eat healthily and learn how food impacts overall wellness. There are cost-effective ways to implement nutrition education in our schools by partnering with nonprofits that already have a good record of working in this area. Since 2008, Common Threads has taught over 130,000 Angelenos and provided more than 1.4 million hours of nutrition education for children, their parents, teachers, and families. Before the pandemic, the organization’s programming was present in over 200 schools throughout the Los Angeles region, helping young people learn about nutrition, how to make healthy meals and the importance of developing lifelong healthy eating habits. At many schools, these efforts complemented existing school activities like Glenfeliz Boulevard Elementary School’s farm-to-table gardening program, so students in the heart of LA can develop a hands-on relationship with food from the source.
Sadly, many of these kinds of programs were halted during the pandemic with school closures. As we near the new school year, it’s imperative that we prioritize the importance of nutrition education in our schools and the value of this kind of programming.
It will be an amazing day when all children who grow up in California, a state that leads in healthy food movements, in tech, and is always ahead in policy, can invest in solutions that help close the nutrition equity gap and build inclusive education in our schools that empowers youth and families to make nutritious food choices.
Elizabeth Falkner is a chef, restaurateur and advocate for nutrition equity in Los Angeles.
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