by Cam Weir, Teacher Candidate Volunteer
Reflecting on student food knowledge and education, there is a lot of research on how to better student eating habits. The new Food Literacy for Students Act (Bill 216), proposed in October, looks to increase student understanding of where their food comes from. The bill also looks to add courses of experiential food literacy and healthy eating for every grade (1 through 12) in order to instil life-long understanding. Even now, however, there are still things you can do at home and in the classroom to help increase students’ food knowledge and better their eating habits.
Over 10 school food programs have been implemented and studied in various areas of Ontario and Canada as a whole. As organizations like Agriculture in the Classroom- Canada (AITC-C), Student Nutrition Ontario and Green Learning in Alberta develop, they all look at a similar goal: increasing student understanding of where their food comes from and teaching healthy eating habits. These organizations can provide useful tools to help educators gain resources through a plethora of different programs and initiatives. Programs, though often done in a school-based setting can be done at home in the current climate with some adjustments. For example, Green Learning’s website includes many monthly activities on a variety of different subjects.
A large study done last year showed that children that are exposed to more foods and given the opportunity to try new foods at a younger age (especially in a classroom setting) are more likely to explore new foods later on. Increasingly more school program studies in Canada and other parts of the world (like in Uganda) found that willingness to try fruits and vegetables was directly influenced by experience with foods. Programs that included tasting at school found it led to children being more open to eating them and including them in their general, everyday diet. Additionally, those with hands-on food experience (e.g. gardening) developed a higher preference towards trying and eating fruits and vegetables (especially ones they grew).
In an attempt to better student nutrition and eating habits, as well as help increase student food knowledge, the practice of gardening has been used as it can be done at home as well as in school. From gardening in the backyard during the spring and summer (or indoors under lights, or on a balcony), to bringing the growth inside with a mini-greenhouse or a Tower Garden, there are many options. As children learn more and more from hands-on experience, gardening also provides educators a way to implement examples of healthy foods. To better the youths’ eating habits, allowing them to grow some of their own foods allows them to see how much work is put into the act of growing the food they eat on a daily basis. It can be said that garden spaces have been idealized, however they allow children to place themselves in the role of a farmer and can help connect the dots between food production and their dinner plates.
Another way to increase students’ knowledge of food production, other than gardening in the classroom, is that of Supervised Agricultural Experiences (SAEs). SAEs can range from visiting a produce farm, to visiting and having programs done with us, Green Thumbs! Students often know where things like milk and meat come from, but have difficulty connecting where fruits and vegetables come from other than the tomatoes they may grow in their backyard and “the store”. Helping kids understand that food can take a plane, boat, or a car in order to get to them can help further their knowledge of where food comes from. A recent study found students had a hard time naming a common foods’ raw form. The foods in their burgers were not all obvious. Things like tomatoes came easy, but the idea that buns came from wheat and pickles came from cucumbers was especially hard. SAEs allow for a number of advantages, including real-life experience, encouragement to learn more in class, and learning about agriculture by seeing and working with it in the field. Implementing new ways of green learning can help students eat healthier now and for the rest of their lives.