When I helped to launch the nonprofit organization, FoodFight, I was often asked if I was a dietician, nutritionist or some other kind of health expert. Folks were surprised when I explained that I was coming to this work as a former public school educator who, based on research, experience, and insight, felt as if a voice missing from conversations about improving health outcomes in schools - particularly in schools in underserved communities.
I knew that the intersections of our nation's health problems (obesity, diabetes, overweight), food crisis (plenty of food - in some areas - but much of it highly processed and nutritionally bankrupt) and environmental challenges (meat production and food transportation put more greenhouse gasses into our environment than all of the cars on the road - to touch on one issue), required a much more complex and long-term approach to helping kids understand and dig into these issues. As an expert in curriculum design, student engagement and effective teaching strategies, I thought that FoodFight could serve as a platform for creating and disseminating high impact food education resources.
Why is it increasingly critical for us to know more about our complicated food system and how it operates? For starters, the industrial food giants continue their efforts to mislead and misinform.
Case in point: Coke's newest tactic - funding of the nonprofit research initiative -The Global Energy Balance Network. Most of us in the food reform space see this for what it is - a front for the beverage giant to push their agenda (i.e. sell more beverage) and deflect attention away from the growing awareness that their products contribute significantly to the global obesity and diabetes crisis. Claiming that there is "virtually no compelling evidence" to support the causality between excess consumption of sugar sweetened beverages and obesity/diabetes is no different from the climate change deniers who desperately cling to the same tired life raft in the face of a tidal wave of data to the contrary. What about the science that says the 140 calories (roughly 10 teaspoons of sugar) in a 12 oz can, takes three miles of walking to offset? What about the fact that many Americans (particularly young and underprivileged ones) favor consuming 20 oz bottles of soda - aggressively priced and conveniently available - in most corner stores. How long should they hit the track for? And where (and when) is all of this exercise supposed to be taking place?
It is sad how academic institutions and researchers are ready to compromise their values and integrity for the sake of massive contributions to their respective universities and research programs. The fact that public health pundits might more easily change the way people eat by working with the food industry instead of against it does not imply that we (the public) should be made to swallow deeply suspect science, at the expense of our long-term health.
Back in 2009, people were beginning to see schools as a vehicle for changing eating behaviors but much of that work focused on fitness programs, gardening and cooking. FoodFight applauds and wholeheartedly supports these efforts, but they must occur within the context of a coordinated food literacy education program that helps to unpack the social, political, environmental and economic forces shaping what we eat and buy. Moreover, if we hope to activate schools as springboards for change, this information has to be readily available to the adults who are responsible for setting cultural norms in schools - namely teachers, staff and parents.
Today, FoodFight is launching an on-line food literacy toolkit with the goal of putting food literacy resources into the hands of school wellness champions around the country. This open-access platform, provides school with a roadmap for engaging all school stakeholders in food education efforts.
Changing the culture of health and wellness in schools is a long and complicated process but we are starting to see evidence of greater and longer lasting success. FoodFight looks forward to helping our non-profit partners continue their work to improve the health outcomes for our nation’s children while providing the tools necessary to begin the process of reclaiming and repairing our food system.
Deborah Lewison Grant, Executive Director, FoodFight