Health Transcending Borders, Language, and Culture: Childhood Nutrition

Childhood NutritionIn 2002 I partnered with Field to Plate  to bring 30 nutrition and foodservice professionals to Challans, France to look at an innovative school lunch program designed to tackle France’s growing childhood nutrition issue and obesity epidemic head-on. Our American group stared in disbelief as a roomful of kindergartners enjoyed a leisurely 45 minute lunch of 3 courses cooked completely onsite using local ingredients: a seasonal shredded beet salad, local fish and celery root puree, followed by an apple compote with (of course!) a small wedge of local cheese. Little baskets of freshly cut French baguettes were on each table, which the children happily passed around as they cleaned their plates (yes, really) and-brace yourself- there was even a bottle of house wine on the table of the “lunch ladies” who oversaw the meal.
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The crispness of that image has stayed with me for years after, both for the cultural implications of a country devoted to putting children’s health first, as well as a country insisting on a culture where food isn’t something to be rushed through all the time.
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As a mother of two young children myself, I know this for sure: no matter the country, one desire transcends across borders, language, and culture: every parent on the planet just wants their children to be healthy. And with childhood obesity being the number one health crisis our children face, the recent webinar by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition  put forth a refreshingly clear, straightforward course across disciplines that addresses the challenges of both a healthy diet and sustainable food systems.
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Their panel of experts left no stone unturned, and no ambiguity in the message:
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1. Our highly refined, ultra-processed diets, plus an inactive lifestyle are one of the primary drivers of the childhood obesity crisis. The result is a strong potential reduction in life expectancy for our children, and an alarming reversal of an established trend of gradual improvement from one generation to the next.
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2. Excessive intake of certain foods - generally the same ones that should be eaten less frequently – exacts the greatest toll on the environment and our natural resources. These include many of the higher impact foods that I wrote about in my book, such as red meat, cheese, certain fish, and highly processed foods and sugary beverages. In addition to creating obesity, the environmental impact of our  “SUV diet” (my term)  serves to magnify the effects of a reduced quality of life for our children. In other words, the data points continue to be plotted showing that personal health and planetary health are deeply connected, on a global scale not seen before.
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3. This makes it absolutely vital today to start a process of collective responsibility: families, pediatricians and schools all have roles to play and can be a powerful catalyst to bring good food to life. What are some things you can do locally?  Encourage your schools to stretch our children’s palates by offering new fruits, vegetables and whole grains alongside familiar favorites. Insist your local school lunch program offers more local foods, more freshly prepared foods, and more fruits and vegetables as snacks. Teach your children to savor recess as a time to recharge, and stretch their bodies before stretching their minds in class. And encourage schools to link learning with the kitchen, teaching nutrition from day 1 as an integral part of “self care”, tasting fruits and vegetables to talk about the 5 senses, or learning math concepts like fractions by preparing a recipe in the kitchen.
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On my last night during that trip to France, the mayor of Challans who had been instrumental in creating the school lunch program spoke to our group and said:
“In so many ways, France looks to and learns from the  Americans, but perhaps in food, and how we feed our children, America might learn from France.”
Indeed. And from Italy, too. This global crisis requires global dialogue and a look at best practices, and I was honored to partner with the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition for this very reason.
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What are you doing to inspire healthy change in your school, your community, or with your pediatrician? I’d love to hear from you!
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You can watch the Barilla webinar or download their paper here: http://www.barillacfn.com/en/cibo-e-bambini/webinar
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Follow the ongoing discussion on twitter at or @BarillaCFN or Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/Barillacfn.
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Disclosure: This blog post is sponsored by Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition