Fighting Childhood Obesity: Local Teachers and Students Learn About Farming, Sustainability, and Healthy Eating at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, NY

Area teachers get a lesson in farming and sustainability at the Stone Barns Center


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Despite constant messages swirling around us — from Michelle Obama’s war on childhood obesity to Chef Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution — fighting bad school-food culture has been an uphill battle.

I know because I’ve tried — and I’m not even talking about cafeteria food. When my daughter was in second grade, I picked a food fight over junk food and Dunkin’ Donut birthday celebrations in the classroom. I urged the principal and wellness committee to establish a healthier, more sensible in-class snack policy. I quoted Michelle Obama. I cited statistics. Everyone nodded.

As a show of good will, the principal at our Hudson Valley school sent home a letter in children’s backpacks suggesting parents send “healthy snacks.” It was a baby step. Suggestions are only that, suggestions. Nothing changed.

What schools really need is policy.

But administrators walk on eggshells when it comes to food policy. They say it is not really up to them to decide what children should eat — if a parent wants to bring Dunkin’ Donuts to celebrate Johnny’s birthday and distribute them to everyone in the classroom, who are they to stand in the way? Though school officials need only glance down their hallways to be reminded that 17 percent (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents ages 2-19 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I probably don’t need to tell you that obesity puts children at high risk of developing hypertension, gallstones, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Still, school administrators often haven’t had the appetite to challenge a sacred American entitlement: junk food loaded with chemicals and preservatives, which is thought to be as American as homemade apple pie once was. I’ve even been told by school officials that by giving children these “foods” in the classroom, they are learning to make choices. Choosing between a chocolate or frosted Munchkin is a teachable moment?

harvesting beets

But hopefully the tide is starting to turn as a plethora of groups and individuals around the nation are focusing their attention on this important cause. In her new book Lunch Wars (Tarcher/Penguin, $17.95), author and activist Amy Kalafa follows up on her award-winning documentary Two Angry Moms by outlining how anyone can start a school-food revolution in his or her own community. In addition, there is now a New York Coalition for Healthy School Food; in January, the USDA introduced the first new school lunch guidelines in 15 years. Change is also starting to happen in the Hudson Valley.

Recently, I attended a professional development program for 20 teachers at the 80-acre Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, Westchester County. The program, also sponsored by Whole Foods, was designed to help the educators — all of whom had been nominated by their students — expand their knowledge of sustainable farming and to incorporate learning about food and agriculture into their classrooms. It included an in-depth tour of the farm; harvesting and preparation of a simple, seasonal farm-to-table lunch; and an opportunity to share resources and activities to take back to classrooms.

For those who have never visited, the farm feels Norman Rockwell-pastoral and food-reformer progressive at the same time. Laying hens, broiler chickens, turkeys, geese, sheep, and pigs graze in rolling pastures. The farm uses no pesticides, herbicides or chemical additives, and grows 200 varieties of produce year-round. There is also a bee-keeping operation. Vegetables, eggs, meat, and honey are sold at its on-site farm market three days a week — and are also prepared daily at the singular Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant, an undisputed leader in the farm-to-table movement. 

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» Visit Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, NY
» Visit Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant in Pocantico Hills, NY

» Visit more Hudson Valley Farms

» Go to the Hudson Valley Food & Drink Guide

» Go to the Hudson Valley Restaurants & Dining Guide


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