Are we leaving kids’ health up to the schools?

Teaching garden programs are popping up across the nation. Kidsgardening.org, a useful site for resources on getting kids in the garden at home or at school, notes among the many impacts of these programs that they can improve nutrition attitudes, which potentially lead to better dietary habits. While lots of us may be getting out in gardens more than ever, children’s garden lessons are increasingly occurring during school hours as part of a classroom curriculum.

Great! Here is one more way we can try to improve children’s eating habits and address the jaw-dropping rates of childhood overweight and obesity. I am excited to see programs like these – called teaching gardens or simply school gardens – as well as many other school-based interventions, which encourage better eating and activity habits for kids. But are we putting too much pressure on the schools to manage our kids’ health?

You might just view the school garden as another great way to get kids outside, but these gardens help tell a bigger story in which schools are becoming increasingly liable for the health of kids. The question becomes: who should be held responsible for kids’ health? I found an interesting article on this topic that presented arguments for both sides.

On one side of the debate, many will argue that because kids spend so many hours at school each week, of course their diet habits need to be addressed by the school. For instance, UC-San Diego pediatrician, Howard Taras, was quoted: “Whoever is providing food for our children should be responsible with what foods they provide. In fact, schools may bear a certain increased burden, because as a teaching institution, they need to be a role model.”

But, on the other end of the debate, others argue the school environment can only go so far in promoting kids’ health. Parents and the community are important resources that need to be held reliable. What’s more, the school can only promote health to the extent that the parents and community will allow and work with the school. The classic example is the parent who wants to bring cupcakes to school. If the school is regarded as the most responsible for children’s health, the parents look bad if their own food choices are not up to snuff with the school standards. Consequently, a parent might be upset about a school controlling their child’s diet. I for one have met parents who are extremely defensive about the idea of the school telling the parent what their child can and cannot eat on school premises. For instance: Who wants to be told they can only pack their child a lunch if the yogurt they pack contains no added sugars? Might there at least be some gray boundaries in terms of what we each consider healthy? What’s more, those who support this latter argument may feel as though they should be able to give their child a treat without being denigrated by the school.

So is it the parent, the school or someone else who needs to direct what kids eat? More on this  tomorrow…Stay tuned and share your thoughts!

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5 comments on “Are we leaving kids’ health up to the schools?

  1. I’m a big fan of collaboration. I don’t think anyone should tell anyone what to do. Parents and schools (ideally) should work together.

  2. Great comment! I agree that this should be a conversation between both parties. As you say, however, that’s “ideally”… I think the stickiest part of this question becomes choosing one or the other – parents or the school – to take a bigger lead and influence if the two cannot communicate and collaborate. It’s a super tricky subject and I hope you’ll continue to share your thoughts!

  3. […] I started to discuss the role of schools in children’s diets. While we see some wonderful school-based programming such as teaching gardens that promote […]

  4. Janice Flahiff says:

    This reminds me of a comment by someone very well meaning…as a group of us in a workplace setting were eating our “self-packed” lunches. Quite a variety, reflecting a variety of foods some healthy, some perhaps not so healthy.
    One person said, let’s comment on each person’s packed lunch and discuss how healthy they are. I just blurted out, rather loudly I fear..at least we’re eating (yes, a weird thing to say)…

    Anyways, there was total silence among the group (about 10 or so)…and after a full 30 seconds..someone thankfully changed the subject….

    Now, as I reflect…I wonder if some choices were based on the cost of the food items, not their “healthiness”…I found out later that a few of these people qualified for food stamps..and they were working 40 hours a week! at a university!

    So, I agree, let’s all partner instead of setting standards. Not only do food choices affect children’s health…but the very process of how schools/parents work together affects how children will work together to address issues and decide things. One current example…In institutions, how are decisions made that affect all? is the decision making top-down? shared? is there consensus? collaboration? acknowledgement of people’s gifts, insights, no matter where they are in the organizational structure?

    • Thanks so much for sharing. One of the things that I have enjoyed from my time with a community gardening organization is the importance of the actual community volunteers. And this goes beyond the idea of ‘many hands make light work’ to also mean: there is no point in providing a program that benefits our community if the individual community members are not committed to it and contributing to it.

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