A week ago Friday, 500 chefs assembled at the White House (and hundreds more, including me, joined the ranks online) to kick off the Chefs Move to Schools program, part of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to improve kids’ nutrition and eradicate childhood obesity within a generation. The plan is simple: chefs “adopt” a local school in hopes that they’ll be able to help transform the kids into healthier eaters. “Chefs are coming from the outside in and they’re bringing good food to the equation,” says Kim O’Donnel, chef and food writer extraordinaire.
Part of that shift has to happen at a policy and administrative level. Right now, each child eligible for a free school lunch is allotted $2.68 per meal from the federal government. The buzz you’re hearing about school lunch reform (both the House and Senate have measures on the table) will wrangle an additional 6 cents and stricter nutritional standards (including on vending machines). That means there’s plenty of room for creative solutions, which is precisely why the first lady tapped this particular group. “Chefs are always making lemonade out of lemons,” says Kim.
The other side of the equation, though, is improving nutrition by getting kids to want to eat healthier–to imbue in them the pleasures of fresh food amidst this world of fast food and drive-thrus. Michelle Stern from What’s Cooking, a blog about cooking with kids for a better body, planet and community, said the first lady had several suggestions for the audience, from cooking demonstrations to planting a garden to working with teachers to introduce food into the curriculum.
But it’s not just chefs who can affect what kids want to eat—and do eat—in schools. You can too. Here are some ideas that bubbled up from my own experience and conversations with Kim and Michelle:
- Get Kids Involved. “Once you get kids involved in one step, they immediately take ownership,” says Kim. “Even things like taking tortillas out of a package or learning to use a can opener … If they’re invested in the meal, they’re more likely to want to eat it.” You can do this for an entire class, your kids’ friends on a play date (see me and Noe on TV showing how to make food fun for kids here) or simply for your own kids. But it will make a difference.
- Get Kids Growing. If you have a garden, invite kids in to explore. My husband planted our daughter a “candy tree” (really a cherry tomato plant) when she was less than a year old and the tradition stuck. This year, Noemi and I added a strawberry patch to the garden. It’s incredible to witness the sheer delight she gets from seeing snacks appear day after day. If you have kids and no garden, plant something—anything—in a pot or box or on a sunny sill just to give your kids that experience of watching something grow.
- Share What You Know. You may well have more to offer your local schools than you think. Know how to bake bread? Fantastic … there’s a science project just begging to be mined. Are you from a country with a rich culinary heritage? Beautiful … a map, a story and a few dishes and you’ve got a social studies presentation. Do you have a computer? Print out or e-mail stories and recipes that you feel could be of help or inspiration to teachers or other parents … you can start right here on !
Was this move on Washington the end-all be-all shift to end childhood obesity? Not quite. “(The initiative) needs some tending and time to mature,” says Stern. O’Donnel agrees that this is a first step and adds, “there are small things we can do in an incremental fashion that are a lot better than not doing anything at all. Let’s not worry about how all of this is going to turn out three years from now. Let’s focus on what’s happening now.”
So this week I extend the challenge beyond chefs to parents and neighbors alike … let’s make a move.