Rationale – Why a Food-based Curriculum?

Why a food-based curriculum?
It is important that students learn about healthy eating patterns at an early age so that they can protect their health through diet as they grow older. Poor eating habits established in young students lead to increased incidence of chronic diseases such as heart disease, many of the cancers, and diabetes. Inadequate nutrition can also prevent students from learning effectively. Lower income students are especially vulnerable to poor nutrition. In all of the schools where the Food is Elementary© curriculum has been adapted, teachers sought to improve student’s health and educational performance by acquainting them with delicious, healthy, whole foods which can, ultimately, be consumed both in the school meal program and at home. Students can also be catalysts for change in their families. Dr. Demas’ research has shown that students act as dietary change agents in their families. Food education projects using this curriculum can involve and educate parents through their students.


Why Commodity Foods?
To help cut costs, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) relies on commodity foods which are available free from the government. The federal government commodity program provides free surplus foods, which the government purchases from farmers to the schools participating in the NSLP. Although commodity foods usually served in school cafeterias are high-fat animal products such as hamburgers and processed cheese, the government published list of commodity foods includes many plant-based whole foods which are highly nutritious. Commodity foods such as bulgur wheat, brown rice, many of the dried beans, and fresh (and frozen) fruits and vegetables usually are not featured in school meals because of the perception that students will not eat them. It is true that students who are unfamiliar with these foods will not eat them. In order for students to change their diets, they must become familiar with these foods. The best way to do this is through hands-on, sensory-based, food education in the classroom.

Because commodity foods are available free to schools for both classroom and cafeteria use, the Food is Elementary© curriculum uses commodity foods to keep teaching costs low and to inspire students to select and eat the highly nutritious foods featured in the curriculum when those foods are served in the cafeteria. The original recipes presented in unit 3 of the curriculum included USDA noted next to each ingredient which is a food on the USDA commodity list. However, the commodity foods made available to schools change from year to year so the USDA notation has been removed from the recipes. It is worth asking the school food director if it is possible to make any of the foods in this curriculum available for educational purposes.

In summary, the Food is Elementary curriculum features nutritious plant-based commodity foods for three reasons:

1. Plant-based commodity foods are high in protein, vitamins, and minerals and low in fat, exceeding
USDA guidelines for most nutrients.

2. Plant-based commodity foods appear in all of the food groups on USDA’s MyPlate food guide
graphic if plant-based milks are used as an alternative in the dairy group.

3. School lunch programs can save money by utilizing more commodity foods.
Food is Elementary©


Do Curriculum Recipes Meet USDA Guidelines?
All entrees in the Food is Elementary© curriculum meet or exceed USDA guidelines for nutrient content. Because recipes in the curriculum utilize plant-based, whole foods, the entrees are naturally low in fat and high in nutrients. A variety of plant foods in the categories of grains, fruits, and vegetables featured in the first semester and legumes featured in the second semester of the curriculum are commodity foods which meet the USDA requirement for both fat and protein content. Legumes are the only plant foods that meet the USDA protein requirement. Although peanuts are legumes, peanuts are avoided in recipes in the curriculum because many students have allergies to peanuts and peanut butter. Legume recipes can provide a healthy alternative to dairy-, egg-, and meat-based entrées.


How Does the Curriculum Relate to the School Meals Program?
Despite real success in feeding hungry students, typical school lunches subsidized by the NSLP do not meet USDA dietary guidelines. Many of the commodity foods served in school lunches are higher in fat and saturated fat than prescribed by the dietary guidelines of the USDA (maximum of 30%) because the commodity foods served are animal-based rather than plant–based. Most animal foods naturally contain saturated fat and cholesterol. Plant foods never contain cholesterol and are usually low in fat. Oils, seeds and nuts contain no cholesterol but do contain substantial fat in the form of plant oils. However, the type of fat in plant-based whole foods is less harmful to the body than animal fat, and some nutritionists say plant-based fat is actually beneficial if consumed in moderation. Meals in the NSLP also contain excessive salt and low fiber content. The USDA is required to set meal patterns and dietary specifications that reflect the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Many schools have not been able to achieve this goal over the years. The USDA has not been able to effectively monitor schools and to ensure compliance with USDA regulations. Entrees prepared in the Food is Elementary© curriculum offer the NSLP a healthy alternative.

The NSLP has the components in place for serving nutritious, plant-based meals if the students will eat them, and the staff will prepare them. In fact, plant-based school meals can save the lunch program money and improve the health of students. Based upon what we know about diet and its relationship to disease, the meat-as-the-center-of-the-plate model is no longer viable. To promote good health, school meals must reflect principles of contemporary nutritional and medical literature about diet such as low fat, low sodium, and high fiber.

The Food is Elementary© curriculum offers to the school meal program tested recipes which meet or exceed USDA guidelines for nutrient content. The curriculum also offers the means to gain student acceptance of low-fat, low-salt, high fiber, and nutrient-dense foods in the cafeteria and at home. Students who have become acquainted with these recipes in the classrooms, select and eat these healthy foods in the cafeteria. All recipes are easy to prepare and low in cost.


Why Implement this Curriculum in Schools?
If students consume healthy plant-based foods in the school lunch program, billions of dollars in health care costs can be avoided in the United States in years to come. We have a moral obligation to make this a reality. Schools have had to take an increasing role in educating students about issues not normally covered in public education. For example, AIDS education and sexual abuse education are now mandated in New York state schools in grades K-12. Because these societal problems were not being addressed through education, our nation has experienced dire consequences. The relationship between diet and chronic disease must also be addressed through education. Most students do not learn about the relationship of diet and chronic disease at home. As a result, schools must take a leadership role in educating students about the relationship between diet and disease in order to make food choices which promote health rather than disease.

We owe it to our children to serve them meals that will benefit their health and well-being. This is especially true for poor students who depend upon school meals for a significant amount of their daily calories. The myriad food education projects using the Food is Elementary© curriculum strategy from 1994 to the present have demonstrated that students and their families will be inspired to prepare and eat nutritious, international foods when they become familiar with such foods through an integrated, hands-on food education curriculum.

For example, in 1998, the Advisory Council on Nutrition of the Miami-Dade County Schools affirmed the need for low fat, high fiber entrees in school meals. Joan P. Smith, Chairperson of the Advisory Council, noted that, “Only requests by students and parents will persuade the schools to offer nutritious, plant-based, whole foods in the lunchroom.” School food service departments will not make changes unless it is clear that there is a desire on the part of students and the public to consume different foods. At the conclusion of the Miami 1998-99 FIU College of Education food education project, participating students in four low-income elementary schools completed questionnaires about the project. More than 80% of the students surveyed who had prepared Food is Elementary© entrees weekly said they would choose the plant-based meals they prepared over the regular lunch menu. In addition, more than 60% of the students surveyed said they prepared the recipes at home on a regular basis with family members. Experience with the curriculum obviously had a positive impact on family eating patterns.