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

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.

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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



John Borchert, who teaches life sciences to seventh- and eighth-grade students at Rye Middle School, was one of the program’s participants. He has long been passionate about turning children on to a world of healthier choices; last September, he created an elective on environment and sustainability at his school. He also has built a 400-square-foot, three-season garden, which is tended by schoolchildren during the year and by campers in the summer. Borchert says he’s even gotten the school cafeteria to prepare meals with spinach, kale, and radishes grown in the garden. “The best way to brainwash kids about eating veggies is to let them grow them, pick them, and eat them,” said Borchert, who added that many kids literally don’t know where food comes from.

While introducing themselves during the morning orientation, the teachers shared stories about their school gardens. A Brooklyn teacher was planning a roof garden. Some talked about cooking harvested produce in the classroom, while others have kids composting. All agreed lessons about food can be taught as part of any subject, whether it’s math, science, or social studies.
But these teachers remain in the vanguard.

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“Food security, healthy bodies, sustainability — these are not the things children are typically learning in the classroom,” said Judy Fink, Stone Barns’ program director. “Teachers like the ones who participated in the ‘Nominate Your Teacher’ contest are already engaged in sustainability and healthier lifestyles. They seemed to be a more sophisticated group than many of the teachers who come here on class trips. A day like this is an opportunity to further engage and motivate them so they will bring back these ideas and integrate them into the curriculum.”

Teachers met with Zach Wolf, a dead-ringer for Viggo Mortensen in Witness. Wearing wide suspenders and a large-brim hat over his sun-bleached hair, the Stone Barns field foreman gave a lesson on erosion prevention.

“The best way to brainwash kids about eating veggies is to let them grow them, pick them, and eat them,” said Borchert

“There’s a connection between chronic disease and nutrient deficiency,” Wolf explained, raising his voice over the groan of tractors. “The organic movement has taught us what shouldn’t be in our food — pesticides, fungicides. But the next phase of education has to be an understanding of what micronutrients the soil needs, but lacks.”Wolf bent down and fingered traces of added sulfur in the soil to make his point. After planting two varieties of broccoli, he led the teachers through the fields, talking about crop rotation and nontoxic weed control.

Several teachers noted that they plant vegetable gardens in the spring and that the children aren’t there to reap the rewards when the crops are harvested in the summer. Wolf suggested planting carrots or spinach in late October for a February or March harvest. “Simple cold frames,” he said, demonstrating how to use piping and plastic to build hoop houses. “This would be a good science lesson,” Borchert pointed out. Student farmers who grow food this way would learn a lot about temperature fluctuation and how it affects plants, he explained.

After the field trip, teachers collected eggs and picked fresh chard and salad greens. They cooked frittatas for lunch. In the afternoon, they learned about sheep and pasture rotation, composting and pig rearing. The daylong training left the teachers sweaty, but inspired. Two educators from New Jersey vowed to form a social network to share resources on ideas and farming. A packet given out by Stone Barns included resource tools on animal vocabulary, vegetable crops, composting, and a primer on bees.

“Days like these are great,” said Borchert. “They immerse us in a culture that is consumed with making the world a better, healthier place, and that gives us the energy we need to pass along the message.”

» 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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