Newswise — With childhood obesity a national concern, many educators at the nation's independent schools are trying new approaches to teach the importance of nutrition.
"Independent schools are like laboratories where innovative ideas and teaching practices can germinate. The programs that many independent schools have developed to teach kids about nutrition and healthy living can serve as models for schools everywhere," says Patrick Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools.
For example, in 2002, Robert W. Surles arrived as head chef at Calhoun School, which educates students between the ages of three and 18 in New York City. Immediately, he instituted a very different meal plan than the school previously offered. Leading a team of five chefs, Surles, known as Chef Bobo, oversees the creation of 10-day menu plans.
A typical Calhoun lunch consists of soup, sandwich, entrÃ©e, side dishes, and salad. Occasionally there is a sweet dessert, but mostly students are offered fruit. The menu on an October Wednesday, for example, included chicken and lime soup, feta and tomato pita, roasted salmon with green onion sauce, roasted asparagus, egg noodles, salad bar, and fresh fruit.
It's a challenge to convince children to try new foods, but Chef Bobo educates while encouraging participation. The chefs visit Calhoun classrooms to teach about new items on the menu. A few years ago, for example, they introduced quinoa, a cereal grain that can be used as an alternative to wheat flour. They showed the children how it looked before cooking it, how it is cooked, and then offered samples.
"Try it, you'll like it," Chef Bobo says, and in this setting, he gets 100 percent of the children to try the unfamiliar foods
Calhoun School also teaches nutrition by studying regions of the world and then introducing cuisine from those areas. November 1 marked the Hindu holiday of Diwali, a festival symbolizing the victory of righteousness and the lifting of spiritual darkness. For that occasion, the Calhoun chefs planned a menu of Indian food.
"We keep our program alive by offering diversity and bold flavors in our foods and by interacting with the students to understand them and for them to be able to approach us," Chef Bobo says.
More American schools might follow Chef Bobo's example if they weren't wary of the expense of preparing unusual and high-quality foods. But the chef says that delicious, healthy food doesn't have to be expensive. At Calhoun, the budget for food remains at three dollars per person per day -- the same today as when the food service was handled by an outside company. The three dollars includes breakfast, lunch and snacks. The chef feeds between 550 and 600 people a day. That includes students, faculty, staff, parents and guests.
"Schools have to understand that a healthy food program is an important factor in the equation for a healthy body," Chef Bobo says. "It offers learning opportunities on so many levels, including literature and the arts, social sciences and philosophy, mathematics and the sciences. Activity in the kitchen even provides some good physical exercise."
A number of NAIS member schools grow their own food. While the production varies from small gardens to acres of crops, the schools benefit from the act of production as well as the produce.
For example, the Midland School in Los Olivos, CA has an eight-acre garden that yields more than enough food for the school. Excess produce is sold at local farmers' markets and organic food stores. The garden program, which students may elect in place of a competitive sport, allows them to cultivate crops and to work with a Clydesdale horse and two mules.
"It's a total sensory experience," says Jill Brady, assistant to the head at Midland. "It's so relaxing to be out in the garden, surrounded by mountains."
At North Country School in Lake Placid, NY, they go beyond gardening. The school raises hens and pigs. While the pigs are butchered off-campus, the chickens are processed at school with student crews helping to pluck, gut, and pack. The goal is to teach children where food originates.
According to Libby Doan, school program director, students "participate in the chicken harvest on the level where they feel most comfortable. They know that the animals have lived a good life and been well cared for, and they know we're not going to be a vegetarian school. It's also an opportunity to make comparisons between the conditions for animals in factory farms versus local farms."
Some independent schools focus on the dining experience to educate about nutrition.
Hampshire Country School, a boarding school in Rindge, NH, for middle-school boys, has just 25 students and focuses on "family-style" eating. Teachers sit with students during meals to encourage manners and healthy eating habits. Sunday dinners at Hampshire Country School are formal, with students in jackets and ties. Despite formality, the mood is relaxed and comfortable. .
"The purpose is simply to provide a pleasant ending to a busy weekend and one more opportunity to share the fun and camaraderie of a boarding school community," says Bill Dickerman, Hampshire Country's headmaster.
All other meals are informal, but faculty and students still sit together at round tables. Dickerman says these meals are the school's most important time of community gathering. The dining experiences encourage good behavior.
"'Please,' 'Thank you' and 'May I be excused to get some salad' are virtually automatic," Dickerman says. "Not because they have been taught but because that is the way it is."
At Hampshire Country School, meals are healthy and well-balanced. They include a single main dish, side dishes, fresh fruit, salad, and dessert. Another benefit of family-style eating is that adults are always near to guide students. The nutrition is not guided solely by the availability of what is prepared, but also by the faculty adults at each table who encourage students to try new foods, eat a salad, or limit portion sizes.
"We believe that our students are eating a far healthier diet than most of their age mates elsewhere," Dickerman says.
"These schools and a growing number of others are modeling the behavior and values they want to instill in their students," concludes NAIS President Bassett. "Teaching children how to make healthy choices is a vital component of a quality education." "
Independent schools are private, nonprofit schools that are governed by boards of trustees. The 1,300 schools that belong to the National Association of Independent Schools enroll more than 500,000 of the nation's children in grades K-12.