I just had the chance to watch What's On Your Plate? ("the documentary film about kids and food politics..."), a film narrated by 2 middle schoolers in NYC that puts the issue of our un-sustainable food system into simple language.
This movie takes you through the thought process of the two girls in their investigation of where their food comes from. They are befuddled by the fact that New York grows many, many varieties of food - yet much of the food that we eat is shipped here from the ends of the earth. Some of us call this our "foodprint" - the carbon footprint resulting from the process of getting food from where it grows, to the plates we eat it on. In a sustainable food system, this foodprint could be quite small - such as when you buy your produce from local farmers markets and the only energy that's used is the truck that brought it on a 2-hour drive. But much of the food that people eat comes by way of a long process of food manufacturing. The food gets shipped from far-away lands and goes to a processing facility, where it is sliced and diced (if grains, they oftentimes get refined, whereby all the good nutrients are taken out), and added into a complex of other food extracts. This new concoction has preservatives added to it, stored in individually wrapped disposable containers, and shipped yet again to warehouses and grocery stores. Think you're doing better by buying that apple from the neighborhood grocery store? But wait, my gut feeling is that it is either an organic apple shipped from the other side of the country, or it's one of those genetically modified versions and has also been doused in chemicals (in which case you should wash it with Veggie Wash).
Fortunately, the NYC Foodprint Alliance (spearheaded by a friend of mine at Just Food) is working hard to get the City Council to adopt a resolution for FoodprintNYC, which would incorporate the issue of sustainable food into the City's PlaNYC (which aims to reduce the City's greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2030). (The original PlaNYC left out the topic of food! Even though livestock operations emit 18% of total greenhouse gases, but plant-based foods contribute significantly less to global warming.) Councilmember DeBlasio introduced the Resolution at a press conference outside City Hall, supported by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.
And of course, the issue of place mattering - the existence of food deserts and redlining of neighborhoods so that fast food chains are incentivized to open up in low income neighborhoods - is addressed. Why is unhealthy food so much more accessible and so cheap? And why are people bombarded with advertisements for these unhealthy foods - sometimes even trying to market them as actually being healthy?? For the food industry to make money, of course. They don't care about your health. If they did, they would tell you to buy local, whole foods from your neighborhood farmers markets. That's the farthest thing from their agenda. And the public health community gets a measley 5% of all healthcare dollars to spend on advertising vegetables and fruits - a fraction of a fraction of what one food industry player spends on marketing its chips.
Going back to the social determinants of health - bodegas are a primary source of food for many people in low-income neighborhoods. But bodegas don't have the capacity to sell many vegetables and fruits. They don't have the right refrigeration - nor enough money to get it - and far too often are drawn by the monetary incentives offered by the junk food and cigarette industries to put unhealthy ads in the windows.
Fortunately, NYC is beginning to provide loans to people to open up supermarkets in underserved neighborhoods.
The girls in the film learned about it all, though. They even took a trip to go visit Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, a champion of healthy food in NYC (I've reposted some of the things he's done under the "Documents" section of the Bronx Health REACH blog). They also mapped out and visited farmers markets (such as Greenmarkets sponsored by the Council on the Environment of New York City, and Harvest Home Farmers Markets) and learned about CSA's or Community Supported Agriculture (such as one through East New York Farms).
In the process of learning about and trying all these healthy foods - derived straight from the ground - the girls' health improved! Something we can all learn a little more about...
What a wonderful story, you say, great. But no, this isn't enough. We need to get every child in the NYC school system to see this movie and start to think about where their food comes from. We need to get parents to see it, so they can support their children's desires for healthy eating habits. But most importantly, we need to get legislators to see it, if it means the possibility of allotting more money to school food so better school food can be served. Because right now, many kids aren't eating the hot lunch that's served at school. It's not as good as it can be, and as a result, kids wind up throwing it out, or buying junk from vending machines that shouldn't even be allowed on during the school day, or bringing junk in from their corner bodegas.
But in the meantime, parents can urge their school principals to partake in the in-class breakfast program, which is one way to ensure all children in a school get at least one healthy meal of the day. Eating breakfast has been shown to improve academic achievement and reduce nurse visits and absenteeism, too. Here is a note from the NYC Nutrition Education Network:
No one should start the day without a healthy breakfast. During these difficult economic times, it’s hard to serve your family 3 balanced meals a day. There is a NYC program to provide in NYC schools that can help. The school breakfast program is available to all students and a new component of the program even delivers meals to students right in their classrooms before they begin their day. It has been shown that children perform better academically and make fewer visits to the school nurse when they have breakfast. The NYC Department of Education and city officials, including City Council and borough presidents, fully support the “breakfast in the classroom” program and are urging more schools to participate in the program.. If you are a parent of a school-aged child, encourage the principal of your child’s school to start this program in September 2009. We are the New York City Nutrition Education Network, an organization of nutrition education professionals - Believe us; it will make a difference for your child!
Another thing you could do is support the NYC Alliance for Child Nutrition Reauthorization (HR 1324/S. 934). Congress will be voting on this legislation within the next few months, which is an opportunity that comes around once every five years. The last time this bill was voted on, money was allotted for the program, but it was never mandated and therefore never distributed. We ask now that you contact your legislators and let them know how important it is to make this a priority. Below are some facts compiled by the NYC Alliance for Child Nutrition Reauthorization:
The Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) is important to New York City
What is this Bill?
Later this year the federal government will reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act (CNA). This legislation sets rules and funding levels for the major school-based nutrition programs, including the School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, and Summer Food Service Program, and other important federal food programs such as the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for women, infants and children (WIC).
Why is this bill important?
This is a once in five year opportunity. The 2009 Reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act can help us accomplish the following goals: achieve the Obama Administration’s goal of ending child hunger and food insecurity; ensure a generation of healthy, productive, nutritionally-aware children; reduce energy use and pollution; create jobs; and stimulate economic activity.
What are we doing to influence this bill?
Groups in New York City representing varying interests have formed an alliance to advocate for changes to the 2009 Child Nutrition Reauthorization. We’ve established a consensus statement of priorities for NYC in CNR, and a cohesive strategy to deliver our shared message reflected in this statement to policy makers, the public, and other relevant parties identified. This alliance brings together various groups that haven’t historically come together to advocate for changes and improvements to CNR.
Nationwide, groups such as anti-hunger, nutrition and public health, food service and industry, community food security groups and others are advocating for specific priorities in the 2009 Child Nutrition Reauthorization. These groups have long recognized the importance of this legislation to their constituencies and have a history of advocacy in this arena. Today, as we recognize the systemic nature of our social problems and realize that they can better be addressed working together, groups are coalescing across boundaries of interest to shape how this legislation will affect us all. Diverse groups in other cities – including Seattle, Boston, Chicago, and LA – are organizing now to develop their collective priorities for CNR. With the largest school district in the nation and large number WIC and CACFP participants, NYC can be a very strong and influential voice for positive change within the Child Nutrition Reauthorization. Especially in this time of fiscal crisis, increased hunger, and concern for children’s health, we must take this opportunity to ask for increased federal funding and improvements to programs that benefit New Yorkers.
NYC Alliance for CNR: Priorities for the 2009 Child Nutrition Reauthorization
Overall, the Reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act must:
1) Make significant progress towards the goal of ending child hunger and food insecurity in America by 2015;
2) Ensure that all children have access to high quality, nutritious foods, local whenever possible, in their schools and through other child nutrition programs;
3) Reduce obesity and diet-related diseases and ensure productive, healthy generations; and
4) Support and expand regional farm and food economies, increasing jobs, enhancing infrastructure, and reducing unsustainable environmental impact .
Summary of the Three Key Strategies to Achieve Those Goals
1. Make federal child nutrition programs universal and more nutritious while reducing their administrative paperwork and bureaucracy.
2. Give programs more resources and technical assistance to serve all children with nutritious food, local whenever possible, produced in an environmentally and economically sustainable manner.
3. Make nutrition education available to all children and caregivers through child nutrition programs.
You can sign on to this bill as a supporter here. (Please only sign if you're a New York or NYC resident.)
I know that was a lot to swallow - I'll stop now. But please do what you can - tell your schools you want to see a healthy school environment, get involved in your school's Wellness Council (or start one if there isn't one!), make sure to give your kids healthy meals and teach them the importance of healthy foods. Talk to your principals and tell them to show "What's On Your Plate?" and implement the curriculum that's being put together in conjunction with the movie. Talk to your legislators to tell them how important it is to invest in school meals and vote for Child Nutrition Reauthorization. Another thing you could do is host an Eat-In through Slow Food USA's Time for Lunch campaign, and invite your legislators. Oh, and read The Jungle Effect by Daphne Miller, MD (here's a great article about it in Today's Dietitian).
This goes for everyone else that's not in NYC, too. Just adapt my suggestions to your own town or city. And visit FoodprintUSA to get your city involved.