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Why Schools Need a Mandatory Nutrition Curriculum

Last week we spent a morning at Validus Preparatory Academy in the Bronx speaking with student leaders at the school about the health crisis that exists among today’s youth and how eating more plant-based foods can decrease their risk for obesity and other chronic diseases.

The visit was part of NYC Green Schools’ official launch of our Meatless Monday campaign, in partnership with the national non-profit Meatless Monday. Our objective is to bring more plant-based foods into city schools to improve our children’s health and the health of our planet.

When preparing our talk, we decided not to downplay the horrifying statistics facing today’s youth. Instead, we decided that the students have a right to know more than anyone the toll our food system was taking on their health. When we told them the staggering prediction that young people today will be the first generation of Americans to live shorter lives than their parents as a direct result of the food they eat, they became extremely attentive. The school’s PTA president, who happens to be a nurse, brought home our statistics when she described her work in an intensive care unit. Five years ago, she said, the vast majority of patients in the ICU were elderly people approaching the end of their lives. In recent years, though, more and more people in their 30s and 40s show up in the ICU with complications from diabetes and hypertension as a direct result of being obese, she said.

The students did not become defensive when hearing the news or when we proposed that they try to reduce their consumption of saturated fat by eating only plant-based meals on Monday. No one asked, “But what about my meat?” On the contrary, they were eager to give healthy, cholesterol-free foods, like vegetarian chili and pasta with tomato sauce and garbanzo beans, a try. They understood what was at stake.

One student in fact had seen the film “Food Inc.” and, as a result of what she had learned about our food system, was trying to become a vegetarian. She told us that when her mom served her hamburger and French fries the night before for dinner, she only ate the fries. Granted, when we asked the students what their favorite school meals were, we heard the refrain you will hear in most city schools: the chicken nuggets, mozzarella sticks, pizza! And, unfortunately, since consumer demand is what drives the “business of school food” — not serving America’s undernourished children the most nutritious meals possible — those popular food items are likely to stay on the menu for a long time to come.

In which case, maybe education is the answer to the health crisis we face. We had just 15 minutes to share with students from Validus information about the food they were eating and how it was affecting their health.And yet, in that short time, we had students motivated to do something about it. Imagine what an entire curriculum dedicated to a detailed examination of our food system and its toll on our health and planet might do. A 15-minute presentation by a startup organization should not be the first time New York City high school students learn about the grim statistics facing their generation. Students need to learn about what’s happening to their bodies and why from their earliest years in elementary school, so that they can develop good eating habits and avoid a lifetime of disease and quite possibly premature death.

Perhaps if our schools were a little less focused on test scores and more focused on subjects that are quite literally a matter of life and death to our students, we would have been spared the story we heard later in the day from a science teacher in Queens who told us about an eighth-grader at her school who had to be rushed to the hospital because of complications due to diabetes.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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