On October 6, word came crashing down from on high that sustainability will not be part of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines. And why would it, one might contend, since it never has before? What does diet and human health have to do with how we grow our food or manage our natural resources?
If that question perplexes you—because food and farming are undeniably connected—you are in the same camp as the national experts on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, who made the recommendation to include sustainability. You’re not, however, in line with the agencies that convened the Committee—the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services—which have decided to ignore their advice.
So what would it look like if our Dietary Guidelines represented health as a holistic pursuit?
We have one possible example in Sausalito, California, where a collaboration between a nonprofit, area chefs, and local schools have helped birth the first all-organic public school district in the nation.
“Students everywhere are vulnerable to pesticide residues and unsafe environmental toxins,” says Judi Shils, founder and executive director of Turning Green, the organization who seeded the program. “Not only does this program far exceed USDA nutritional standards, but it ties the health of our children to the health of our planet. It’s the first program to say that fundamentally, you cannot have one without the other.”
Turning Green launched the Conscious Kitchen program in 2013 to rethink school food based on five concepts: Fresh, Local, Organic, Seasonal and Non-GMO, or FLOSN. The program has become embedded in the two K-8 schools that make up the Sausalito Marin City School District: MLK Jr. Academy in Marin and Willow Creek Academy in Sausalito. Both schools are majority free- and reduced-price lunch, which reflects low-income among students’ families. This fall, the schools will serve more than 550 students and 120,000 so-called “FLOSN” meals, in which all food is organic, and more than 90 percent of all produce is sourced from local farmers and purveyors.
But the program is about more than sourcing; it also entails the universe around meals and food, including:
- Zero waste policies and education
- Students cooking and cleaning up scratch-cooked meals from an on-site kitchen.
- Dedicated Head Chef and team at each school who ensure a welcoming, engaging place to eat
- Respected local professional chef, who acts as a mentor for staff and students
- Partnerships with organic farmers and purveyors
- Students gaining leadership by working with the chef to develop menus and guide the program
- Garden and nutrition curriculum and activities that engage students and families
The Conscious Kitchen ties the health of students to the health of the planet – and goes further to prove that when kids have better food and a stronger food environment, the impacts ripple throughout their day and the community at large. Some of the most exciting results of the program come via reports from teachers of improved academic performance, a 67 percent decrease in disciplinary cases, and increased attendance, leadership, respect and open communication by students. Turning Green has unrolled a series of resources to help other school districts follow in their steps, and are planning to offer direct support on a case-by-case basis.
And now, back to the pesky Dietary Guidelines. What do they even do? For many of us, we experience them offhandedly through nutrition labeling, and we might occasionally get a lecture on them from a doctor. But it’s all soft, optional stuff. However, the Dietary Guidelines wield enormous impact on national nutrition policy, education, and food assistance programs. They also affect the lives of kids who eat school meals. Many children are consuming most of their daily calories at school, and in some cases, school food is the only food they eat regularly, so these guidelines, through their influence on school nutrition standards, are determining what feeds their brains and bodies.
The Sausalito school food program shows another way. How we conceive of diet affects not just what kids eat, but how they learn, feel, and behave. Health is, after all, bigger than nutrients. The good news is that our nation’s leading nutritionists are finally seeing it—and saying it. Now we just have to open the eyes of our leading bureaucrats. Maybe we should feed them a good lunch.
Listen to chef Justin Everett who helped found the Conscious Kitchen, about his approach to food: