I’ve been wanting to write this blog for awhile now, but I went to an event yesterday that really inspired me, so here I am with this blog post.
First, I want to say–there needs to be a total paradigm shift & re-evolution in terms of how schools, parents, and families are approaching the conversation of health & wellness in our schools! Many times, I’ve been in the classrooms with students–as a teacher–and have heard so many children cry about their stomachs hurting, they have headaches, they don’t feel well and unfortunately, the list goes on and on.
In this blog, I will identify three major issues that are happening in many urban schools that are affecting the well-being of students. I will also give some attention to the term ‘food justice’ and its plays in curriculum and schools and then provide some alternatives & interventions that school leaders & teachers can consider and possibly adopt to overturn some of these concerns:
1.Lead in paint & water. This is a big issue in many schools in major cities. The presence of lead is one that is affecting many students who attend schools in places like Chicago, New York, & Detroit. In 2016, for example, 113 Chicago Public Schools tested positive for a high volume of lead in the water fountains in the school buildings. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that when children have been exposed to lead (via paint or water), there is a higher probability for brain damage, speech & communication disorders, learning disabilities and delays in the child’s attention span. No wonder many children in urban schools have been labeled as having ADD or ADHD.
2. Quality of food served for students’ lunches. This is a big one and an issue this is about the quality and substance in food lunches. First, let me say that the processed foods that are being served to children who in low-income schools that receive the FREE & REDUCED LUNCH is not the healthiest food option. Now, this raises a problem because if a family is not able to afford lunch for the child, then the child has to rely on the free and reduced lunch food program provided by the school. And I raise many concerns about the quality of nutrition of school lunches. When taking a closer look, one may discover that the food is mainly prepared with high levels of sugar, salt, high fructose corn syrup, processed meats, and color additives (RED 05; YELLOW 04; GREEN 02, etc. and I wonder why these color additives are banned in some European countries, but are used in food products here in the US???).
3. Another issue that deserves attention in relation to health & wellness in urban schools is the presence–or absence–of certified staff and personnel who can provide knowledge, resources, and hands-on assistance in the areas of wellness. I’m talking about the school nurses, certified school psychologists, social workers, and also physical education/health teachers. Because many schools in urban cities are under-resourced (due to systemic & structural racial and economic discrimination), these positions are often not filled in the schools or such individuals are only asked to work part-time. What if a child has experienced a trauma, such as the loss of a friend or family member–who can this child speak with who may be able to offer assistance? If a school does not have a health/PE teacher, how is the student learning about the myriad of ways to engage in health and wellness-based self-care? How is the student learning about the importance of physical exercise if there are no gym teachers to teach those classes?
Solutions/Strategies for Intervention:
- Schools can promote healthy eating by implementing a school garden. This is becoming very popular now and many teachers, school district leaders, and principals are working with community agencies to implement gardens in their schools. School gardens can also be of benefit to the students because it teaches them responsibility; it teaches them how to sustain and grow their own food using their own capabilities; and it inspires them to become community change agents by learning how to work with the natural ecosystem in the environment of the school. The presence of a school garden can also open up conversations in the school to talk about healthy eating recipes, live demonstrations, and ways to incorporate a plant-based diet (for example) into one’s daily lifestyle.
- Principals can change the menu of the school to promote a vegetarian or vegan diet. Again, this is a decision that is up to the administration. Although a school can be on a free/reduced lunch program, choices can still be made in terms of what kind of food is being served to the food. A vegetarian or vegan diet can encourage children and families to eat alternatively while still consuming the necessary vitamins, minerals, and other necessary food elements. In taking a closer look at the school lunches, I also think about the other food items that are present on the plate. Are fresh fruit, salads, or vegetables served with the meals? Is dairy milk the only option for a beverage?
- Offer curriculum/workshops/courses on food justice and sustainability in the school. This is key. Schools can offer courses or curriculum units in teachers’ lesson plans on the topics of food access & food justice (who has access to food? Where? And within what social, political, and cultural milieus?); food security and social justice; and students can understand, re-think, and discuss the implications of access to food, particularly in racialized, diverse communities. This specific topic deserves another topic because I want to discuss the fact that there are many schools and teachers who are engaging in various sustainable and food-justice schooling practices. Topics of entrepreneurship can also be of value in such courses.
While I’m here on this topic, let me also explain what I mean by the term ‘food justice’. Food justice is a inter-disciplinary topic that examines the adequacy/quality of food; the availability and access to food; and the sustainability of food systems within a given environment.
Food justice takes an inherent critical position, looking at how power, systemic/structural inequalities, and oppressive forces are also intersected with access to food. Food justice organizers, scholars, activists, and leaders also look at food justice through lenses of critical race theory; environmental justice; feminism/gender theories; and indigenous perspectives.
The purpose of this blog is to begin a discussion with school leaders, teachers, and community members about the importance of food security, food justice, and health/wellness in schools. I want to bring specific attention to schools that serve a background of racial and socioeconomic diversity, because students of color and/or poor children are more vulnerable to health issues due to lack of healthcare for affordability and access reasons, poor eating habits, and other lifestyle concerns. I think more action can be done in schools to promote wellness and healthy/optimal state of being in our schools and with our children.
In the spirit of wellness,