January 6, 2011

Are you learning your food habits at home? Doesn’t look like it.

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

When I was a teacher, a common gripe among the staff was that the parent’s “weren’t doing their job” at home and how were “we,” the teachers supposed to make up for students whose parents didn’t read to them or encourage them to do their homework. This ongoing blame game ranged from discussions of reading ability, to discipline, to food. We often think that the home is where habits for a healthy life, or a disciplined student, or a physically fit individual begin and end. A new study from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health pokes a hole in our teacher’s lounge argument, showing that the relationship between dietary intake of parents and their children is weak, grows weaker with age and is growing weaker over time.

The study looked at parent-child dietary studies from different countries, including the U.S. over the past 30 years and found that across different countries, with similar and different methods, the relationship was weak. What does this mean? Does it mean that parents have no influence over what their children eat, and the type of eaters they become as they grow up? No. Individuals have a complex relationship with food and children are no different. Parents are a part of the relationship, but this study shows they are only a small part of what determines what and how we eat. It also shows that this relationship is becoming less strong as our society progresses. The weakening relationship could exist for many reasons, including: the growing independence of children, changing parenting styles, changes in our food system, increases in the amount of working mothers or changes in our home and social environments. An anecdotal article about award winning chefs and their kids from the Baltimore Sun recently, would attest to parent’s lack of influence. In the article, even James Beard award winning Chefs lunchbox concoctions can’t compete with lunchables.What I take away from this study is how much our social and physical environment might be playing a role in our dietary development as eaters. With most children in the U.S. eating at least one meal a day at school and many low-income students eating two and sometimes three meals a day at school, the parent’s influence on their child’s eating behavior is reduced even more. As such, it is even more important to make the school food environment a positive experience that helps develop healthy food habits for life.

So, I pose these questions with my background as a high school teacher for seven years to guide me. Do our school food policies support healthy food habits? Does the start time of school prohibit the eating of a healthy breakfast; so many students eat breakfast pastries, chips and/or soda for breakfast? (I do understand that they may eat that breakfast for other reasons as well.) Does the lunch period encourage the sitting and sharing of a meal in a relaxed setting or a rapid “filling of the tank?” Should vending machines be the default “in-between” meal snacks and what should be in them? Should meals at school actually be cooked fresh, with produce, meat and grains that experiment with flavors and tastes and encourage kids to think differently about food? All of these are questions that become important if this study is showing that our physical and social environments for children are the most important factor in the development of young eaters.

Innovative programs in the school food environment are starting to fill the gaps in the lunch line. Meatless Monday, a program in the Baltimore City schools is in its second year of full implementation. The program encourages the reduction of meat consumption once a week as a way to improve not only the health of the individual, but also the health of the planet. Farm to school programs are cropping up across the country, ranging from programs that bring local, fresh produce to the cafeterias, to programs that include field trips to local farms to further the relationship building between students and their food. Most recently, Michelle Obama launched her Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools program, designed to provide the funding for 6,000 school to begin having salad bars at their schools. Elementary schools are also beginning breakfast in the classroom programs where kids are getting a universal free breakfast that is eaten in the classroom to make sure kids are well fed and ready to learn.

Science is telling us that we can no longer look to the home for the development of healthy eating habits. That means we have to take more control of the social and physical environment for our children. It starts with what is served, and sometimes more importantly, what is not served in our schools, but it includes much more than that. It may include teaching kids how to cook healthy food, how to grow food, how to buy healthy food and navigate a supermarket. It may include the creation of healthy school zones that limit fast food restaurants. Regardless of what specific policies schools start to adopt, it’s time to take responsibility for the eating habits of our students, and its time for governments to begin investing in that reality.

– Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

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