Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver wants to combat the country's childhood obesity epidemic by providing healthy meal and snack options in schools—and he's empowering parents to help him with his cause. Oliver, known as "The Naked Chef" because of his simple approach to cooking, wants to fight obesity in schools by eliminating processed foods from campus, and encouraging schools to make meals from scratch, often with help from students. Even elementary-aged kids can wash, chop, season and prepare certain foods—and by using a hands-on approach to connect with cafeteria fare, they'll learn healthy eating habits for life.
Chef Ambra Lowenstein—an instructor at Kids At Work!, a program of Aspire, Youth and Family, Inc. in Clyde, North Carolina—finds that many kids are so out-of-touch with what's on their plates, that they don't realize that food doesn't come from a box. These children don't have previous cooking experience, but getting them washing, chopping or sautéing inevitably transforms these take-out junkies into bona fide food lovers. "They get excited when they make dishes they'd eat at a restaurant," she says.
Oliver isn't alone in his concern. According to the American Heart Association, childhood obesity affects one in three American kids, and leads to a host of health-related problems, such as heart disease and diabetes. Even the U.S. government has intervened, passing the National School Lunch Act in 2010, aiming to provide funding for more nutritious food choices to schools.
Change is needed at the policy level, because even if you pack your child a healthy lunch, you can't guarantee he'll eat it, or that he won't buy a sugary snack or drink from a vending machine. Plus, many students look to the school's meal program as their main source of nutrition.
So what can you do to fight obesity at your child's school? Here are a few tips:
- Get informed. Find out what your kids are eating. Go to the school every day for a week and copy menus, take notes and pictures, and scope out snacks or vending machines that your child has access to. Once you know what food choices students have, your Revolution strategy is easier to develop.
- Make connections. Who are the major players within the school's organization? Make a list of who's in charge, from the principal to nutrition directors, so you can get in touch with these individuals when you're ready. Opening communication and forging relationships can help your campaign.
- Assess the situation. Sit down and decide what, exactly, needs to be changed at the school. Oliver's School Food Audit can aid your assessment. Take his form along when you visit the cafeteria. In addition to questions about types of food, its quality and its preparation, Oliver includes questions about the length of the lunch line and kitchen facilities.
- Gain Support. Talk to other concerned parents, teachers or community members, and form a group to support your Revolution to fight obesity in schools. Use social media sites to get the word out, garner interest, and attract knowledgeable community members, like nutritionists or doctors, to lend credibility to your cause.
- Get your hands dirty. Help to start a school garden that's part of a class or work-study program. Kids of all ages, from kindergarten to high school seniors, can sow seeds, water plants, pull weeds and harvest crops. Seeing the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor on their plate will connect students to their lunch—and encourage them to try new, healthy dishes.
- Find a local Iron Chef. Talk to chefs, cooks and catering companies in your area about how they can help. Ask if they'd volunteer their time to teach a class, oversee the school kitchen or come up with healthy, kid-friendly menu ideas for cafeteria kitchens. It's fantastic publicity for them, and a huge boost for your campaign.
You can also visit Oliver's Food Revolution website to find other tools for teachers and schools to clean up their lunch options. Be persistent and stay positive. The campaign may seem long, but your kids, and their future children, are worth the effort.