Last Tuesday, education reform leader Michelle Rhee rocked Chattanooga’s Tivoli Theatre with a message about putting students first in public school decision-making. “Part of what we need to do…as a community is to begin to think about things from the perspective of what we would do for our own children, “ she insisted, “…then you end up with a very different set of policies.” While she referred more or less to matters that are usually decided in the meeting room of an education board, her message is equally relevant to another room of active decision-making: the Lunchroom.
School Lunch has been making the headlines lately, and for good reason. In December, President Obama signed the child nutrition bill, an act that authorizes funding for school meals and child nutrition programs and increases low-income children’s access to healthy food. Since then, public schools have started sourcing more fresh produce for school lunches. Although it costs a little bit more for fresh food, children have been eating healthier than they have been in years, and with a national childhood obesity rate approaching 20 percent, this is a pretty big deal. In Chattanooga, the School Nutrition Program is aiming to do the same.
Hamilton County’s Department of Education has some exciting things planned. After receiving a grant from Gaining Ground last year, the Hamilton County Department of Education has not only increased the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables in local schools but also launched a program called “Chef Nights,” aimed at teaching elementary school children and their parents about how to prepare healthy meals. During a typical Chef Night, a local chef holds a live demonstration about how to prepare a healthy meal using fresh food, and gives out samples, recipe cards, and basic nutrition information. This year’s Chef Nights series kicked off two weeks ago at East Lake Elementary, one of five elementary schools to host the event this fall.
While Chef Nights and School Nutrition Programs are making inroads into one of Hamilton County’s most pressing health issues, there are other ways that kids are learning about food, too. Through the vision of a few enthusiastic teachers, school gardens are starting to grow throughout Chattanooga. This past Wednesday Battle Academy’s Garden Club, a group of 30 third graders, met on the rooftop of their school to plant seeds, pull weeds, and soak up some afternoon sunshine. In their raised beds, they are growing a variety of plants, including broccoli, collard greens, sweet peppers, mint, and flowers. When asked if they enjoyed what they were doing, the overwhelming response was, “YES!” Teacher Cindy Chapin Kean explained that they have had this garden for over two years, and have received support from a variety of different grants, including Annie’s Organic Foods Grants for Gardens fund, as well as the private foundations in Chattanooga, the Hamilton County Department of Education, and the Junior League of Chattanooga.
In Tennessee, the childhood obesity rate is one of the fastest growing in the country. Yet whether it’s starting a garden for a bunch of third graders to learn about where their food comes from, organizing a Chef Night, or changing school purchasing policies, minds in this county are committed to and concerned about the way this younger generation is growing up to perceive food. The video posted above reveals yet another group of people who share that same concern – our local farmers. Do you have thoughts about what we can do to change the way young people connect with their food? What has your experience been? We invite you to share your thoughts below.
CLICK HERE for WDEF's video coverage of Chef Night at Hardy Elementary.