Kids like to talk about food, at least if a couple of new farm-to-school lessons at Southside Elementary School in South Buffalo are an example.
The lessons showed that the program buzz is palpable among students — who are more than willing to throw their parents under the bus when it comes to their lack of healthy food choices at home.
Take the fourth-grader who learned that white bread on sandwiches adds too many simple carbohydrates — and, over time, too many pounds.
“I have white bread with my peanut butter sandwich,” he exclaimed. “C’mon!”
Sue Baldwin, wellness coordinator with the Buffalo Public Schools, began to lay the groundwork for district farm-to-school efforts last school year. The efforts are designed to boost the health of students — and, by extension, their families — through agriculture, health and nutrition education that connects schools, farms and community partners. The partnerships also look to help strengthen the regional farm and food economy.
Research shows that farm-to-school programs, which have grown in popularity nationwide, better prepare children to learn, appreciate the importance of agriculture and improve healthy decision-making that can last a lifetime.
Fourth-graders in 49 Buffalo public elementary schools are among the early beneficiaries. The district in recent weeks has invited D’Youville College and SUNY Buffalo State nutrition students into classrooms to begin the task of teaching students how to make healthier eating choices. The interns were trained by Eat Smart New York nutrition educators with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County.
The lessons at Southside Elementary started last month, when Jenny Arnette and Alanna Bonaccorso — fourth-year students in the D’Youville five-year master’s in dietetics program — taught about 75 students how food gets from the farm to the table, as well as how to choose the healthiest foods.
“It’s nothing conceptually complex,” Arnette said, “so if you’ve had exposure to it, it’s easy to pick up, but you’d really be surprised how many people don’t know or haven’t had any exposure to this.”
The two dietetics students in late October worked their way through the second lesson for all three Southside fourth-grade classes by helping their young charges decide which foods fall into one of three categories: "go," "slow" and "whoa."
Many of the foods with which they are most familiar at home fell into the "whoa" category: food choices that over time pack on weight, cause chronic disease and should be enjoyed rarely, in moderate portions.
The kids easily guessed some of the major culprits, including a smorgasbord of Buffalo standards. Within a minute or two, candy, cake, ice cream, pizza, cheesecake, chicken wings, chip dip and syrups made the "whoa" list in Sara Runfola’s class.
Students also were able to tease out a "go" list of anytime foods fairly easily. It included carrots, oranges, pineapple, peppers, tomatoes, kale and salsa, raspberries, apples and pears.
The "slow" list — foods best enjoyed once or twice a week in moderate portions — took more time. Mashed potatoes and dark chocolate made that list.
One of the big lessons involved how foods are processed — and, depending in what ways, which categories they would fit.
A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, for instance, can go from a "whoa" to a "slow" or a "go" with sugar-free jam on dark or whole-grain bread, while yogurt, too, can be a "go," "slow" or "whoa" food.
Adding too much salt, sugar or fat — or a combination — can turn a "go" food into a "slow" or a "whoa" food, the two college students explained, making it important to read food labels carefully.
“There are no bad foods,” Arnette told the students. The bigger issue is how often you eat them and, in many cases, how much healthy fiber they have.
“During the week,” she said, “you would want most of your foods to be "go, a couple of your foods to be "slow" and once in a while you’ll want a "whoa" food, maybe on Halloween or a special occasion.”
The lesson ended with Bonaccorso telling the students, “You have the power to change your eating.”
Fourth-grade teachers at Southside gave the lessons high grades.
“We weren’t exactly sure how it was going to go,” James Williams said outside his classroom as the interns taught inside. “The kids are into it. They’re actually eating like they’re supposed to. We have snack time at the end of the day and more and more of them are eating healthy snacks. I’m not seeing much junk food coming in here. They’re having a good time with it so far.”
Williams and other teachers eventually will take over farm-to-school lessons, incorporating them into regular classroom instruction.