by Deborah Lewison-Grant and Carolyn Cohen
Despite doubt expressed by scientists that anti-obesity programs actually work, the evidence pointing to a decline in childhood obesity rates in many American cities should be heralded as good news – particularly for those of us on the front lines of the food reform movement. Although the drops are small, about 5% in Philadelphia and New York and 3% in Los Angeles, the fact that the needle is finally moving in the right direction indicates that (at the very least) some of our efforts are working. Before popping any champagne (or perhaps sparkling water) corks, it should be noted that, according to the CDC, 17% of children under 20 and 36% of adults are still obese and that disparities across income and ethnicity are disproportionately borne by people of color in low-income communities.
While researchers say they are not sure what is behind the decline, given that the initiatives profiled in a December 10th New York Times article (and myriad others across the country) are operating in school based settings, it seems reasonable to conclude that schools have a significant a role to play in anti-obesity campaigns. Nonetheless, scientists and skeptics alike are right to say that individual, one-time efforts do not produce results; a predictable failure, given the entrenched nature of the problem and the complexity of the forces acting on our current food system and food choices. Moreover, even school based efforts are unlikely to create deep and lasting change without first establishing new parameters which promote a culture of health and wellness in schools.
Meaningful transformation of school culture requires the buy-in of adult stakeholders – i.e. teachers, administrators and school staff – the people actually responsible for establishing cultural norms, enacting policies and initiatives and communicating standards to students, parents and the community at large. We can’t expect students to make healthy choices (either in or out of school) while the adults in their learning communities are plunking down sugary drinks, chips and candy bars on their desks and ignoring conventional wisdom about eating well balanced meals. At the same time, we can’t expect teachers to act as role models for their students without giving them the knowledge they need to make healthier eating and buying decisions and supporting their own health and wellness needs.
Schools should be viewed as powerful platforms for continuing to promote healthier eating, food system reform and environmental sustainability. By ignoring the health of employees – the over 6 million people employed by the public school system – not only is this valuable asset put at risk but a critical opportunity for activating school personnel as agents of change is lost.
Carolyn Cohen and Deborah Lewison-Grant founded FoodFight, a non-profit educational organization, in 2009. FoodFight aims to revolutionize how teachers and students think about food, its role in their lives, and its effect on their health. Carolyn and Deborah developed and lead FoodFight’s Teacher Wellness Program©, an intensive, hands-on workshop for faculty, administration and staff in public schools, and have introduced FoodFight in the Classroom©, a standards-based curriculum that engages students in the national conversation about food, food politics and critical consumerism. To date, Carolyn and Deborah have brought FoodFight to 50 Title 1 schools in New York City, impacting more than 200 teachers and 6,500 students.
Passionate about empowering at-risk youth through education, Carolyn joined the founding staff of the Institute for Collaborative Education (ICE), a secondary school in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park, in 1998. At ICE, she served as Head of the Humanities Department, Director of Admissions, and liaison to the Consortium of Alternative High Schools in New York City. As Director of ICE’s Senior Internship Program, Carolyn worked with hundreds of ICE students to match and mentor them in their internship experiences in New York City.
Carolyn earned a BA from Brown University and a Masters in Education from the New School for Social Research. She is a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition where she received a Health Coach Certification from the Association for Drugless Practitioners. She lives with her husband and two children in New York City.
Deborah Lewison-Grant began her career as an educator with an eight-year stint as a New York City public high school teacher. She went on to study at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she focused on fusing progressive theories of education with the practice of teaching in an urban setting. During this time, Deborah worked for the National Center for Restructuring Education Schools and Teaching (NCREST) and played a key role in researching and analyzing the benefits of small schools for at-risk teenagers.Deborah earned a BA from Vassar College and a dual Masters degree in Deaf Education and English from Teachers College, Columbia University. She returned to Columbia to earn a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Teaching with a focus on enriching student-teacher interactions in the classroom. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.