Do Your Children Know Where Their Food Comes From?

If you attended an Ontario middle school in the early 1980s you may remember doing the “health hustle” after the morning announcements. I remember dancing to funky, disco beats, half-embarrassed and half-asleep. It was all part of a campaign to help children get their heart rates up and teach them the benefits of exercise. But what I really loved were the school trips to Pioneer Village (I learned a lot about baking bread and spinning wool), and the Sugar Bush — to draw pure, maple sap from our Canadian maple trees.

I’m sure schools across the province still have programs and trips like these in place, but now we have a new set of issues to add to the mix — energy consumption and climate change. Educating children about living healthy lifestyles and eating locally grown food can help combat these issues.

EcoSource is an innovative environmental organization specializing in fun, hands-on programs to help change our daily habits so we can become better environmental citizens. It was first started as the Mississauga Clean City Committee in 1979 by Mayor Hazel McCallion, but the organization changed its name to EcoSource in 1997 to expand its mandate beyond “litter” issues. One of its current programs is the Green Schools Initiative, which works on an ongoing, one-on-one basis with schools by providing expertise, events and community recognition for schools that commit to reducing their waste and to becoming more environmentally responsible.

“The majority of our programs focus on working with youth and what they can do in their daily lives to improve their local environment. Issues of focus include eating locally and getting to know their local Greenbelt farmers, plus waste reduction activities and planting learning gardens at schools,” says Lea Ann Mallett, executive director of EcoSource.

In early March of 2007, the organization launched the Youth and Local Food program, a new pilot project that was funded by a grant ($106,000 for the first year of the pilot) from the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation. The theory behind the program is that children and families in greater Toronto urban communities are missing a strong sense that local farms are a big source of healthy food. Miles of highways and roads now separate people from nearby Greenbelt farms, not to mention there is a lack of awareness of how food grows, and most children have no opportunity for hands-on experience at local farms. “Many youth are surprised to find out that their food choices can reduce climate change and help to protect Greenbelt farm land,” says Mallett.

Mississauga’s Thomas Street Middle School is the first school to take part in the project. Students from grades six to eight have been given the chance to visit local farms and participate in spring planting and fall harvesting.

“Just by eating Greenbelt apples, you have become great stewards of the land,” Mallett told the students on March 7. “An apple from the local Greenbelt farm is fresh and delicious,” she explained. “But did you know that it also takes only a little energy to bring that apple to you? Your Greenbelt snack created much less pollution and smog getting from the farm to here, than an apple that traveled all the way from the West Coast.

“It takes a long time for adults to change their ways,” she continued. “So you can set an example for us by doing everyday things to help reduce global warming — like eating Greenbelt apples. We can’t rebuild our suburbs, but we can rebuild our ties with our living countryside.”

Ecosource’s mission is to have all Peel Region schools join the program and convince the two Peel school boards to create a district-wide program to purchase their school children’s healthy snacks from local Greenbelt farmers. So far, EcoSource serves over 20,000 youth per year in their environmental education programs and over 1000 youth and adults in their naturalization activities.

SO WHAT IS THE GREENBELT, EXACTLY?

According to the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation’s website, www.ourgreenbelt.ca, Ontario’s Greenbelt is an area of permanently protected green space, farmland, vibrant communities, forests, wetlands and watersheds. It surrounds the province’s Golden Horseshoe, the most populated area of Canada, and is vital to the quality of life in southern Ontario. There are over 1.8 million acres in the Greenbelt, which includes the Niagara Escarpment, the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Rouge Park.

Created by legislation in 2005, and based on a $25 million endowment by the provincial government, the purpose of the Greenbelt is to protect key environmentally sensitive land and farmlands from urban development and sprawl. From an economic perspective, approximately half the newcomers to Canada settle in this area, bringing with them their skills, energy, know-how and cultures. It is forecasted that millions more will settle here in the coming decades and the government is taking notice.

“By preserving and supporting sustainable local agriculture we are decreasing the distance our food has to travel and we are supporting our local economies, as well as creating a healthy, natural link between urban food buyers and rural producers. People want to know where their food comes from,” says Burkhard Mausberg, president of Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation.

LOCAL VS ORGANIC — THE DEBATE

An interesting question now begs to be answered: From a health perspective, is it better to eat locally grown fruit and vegetables, or should we choose organic whenever possible? When I asked Mausberg this question, he pointed out TIME magazine’s cover story titled “Forget Organic. Eat Local.” (March 12, 2007, Canadian edition.) In the article, author John Cloud attempts to answer his own question of whether he should by the local apple from a nearby New York State farmer, that has been sprayed with pesticides, or buy the organic apple from California that endured jostling inside a refrigerated crate for thousands of miles, losing freshness, not to mention burning fossil fuels to get to him.

“If scientists could conclusively prove that agricultural chemicals are harmful, we would all go organic. But it’s not clear, for instance, that the low levels of pesticide typically found on conventional produce cause cancer. The risks of long-term exposure to those residues are still undetermined,” writes Cloud.

In the end he decides that he prefers local to organic, even with the concession that local farmers must make. “There’s something romantic about the desire to know exactly where your food is from … I would still rather know the person who collects my eggs or grows my lettuce or picks my apples than buy 100% organic eggs or lettuce or apples from an anonymous mega-farm at the supermarket,” writes Cloud. Not only does he feel more rooted and safer by eating locally (it puts a face to a name), Cloud has a new appreciation for that age-old saying  “we are what we eat.”

The answer to my question becomes even more complicated when you combine both “local” and “organic” together. Lorenz Eppinger, certified organic farmer of Greenfields Farm in Campbellville, Ontario, had this to say: “Some conventional growers are jumping on the politically correct-eat local-band wagon to appear more consumer friendly and environmentally conscious.
“I consider imported organic to be slightly better than locally grown conventional produce. Ideally, we should be eating locally grown organic food and we should use Greenbelt [Foundation] funds to help the organic farmers.” (Even in the off-season, he believes in importing organic.)

But Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation does support organic agriculture, sponsoring events like the Guelph Organic Conference and the organic culinary festival, Feast of Fields. They also “recognize the obstacles that conventional farmers face and the importance of sustaining a viable local farming community…we fund Farmers’ Markets Ontario and we are working with them to establish new farmers’ markets in and around the Greenbelt, to provide produce that is fresh, delicious and local,” says Mausberg.

According to Eppinger, however, it’s not enough:  “As far as the Greenbelt Foundation is concerned, I’m a bit disappointed that they haven’t put more funding behind organic farming initiatives and suspect that they are under pressure from conventional and agribusiness farming groups. He continues, “I see organic farming as an opportunity for all Greenbelt farmers as local organic food is experiencing a growth in demand and organic farming is more sustainable both environmentally and economically as farmers don’t depend on expensive chemical agricultural inputs which are priced very high, i.e. taking as much of the farmers profit as possible.”

All debates aside, the feedback to EcoSource’s programs, from both youth and teachers, has been favourable. “We are receiving very positive responses from schools and businesses that provide snacks to schools around incorporating local Greenbelt foods into their snack programs,” says Mallett. And considering that bad snacking in adolescence often leads to bad snacking in adulthood, educating youth on healthy eating is key to changing their habits.

BAD SNACKS PACK ON THE POUNDS

According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, schools are an ideal setting to create healthy eating habits in children. Policies that promote healthy food choices at school such as healthy menus, student stores and guidelines for healthy bag lunches have been shown to have a moderate to high impact on children’s eating practices. Schools that allow frequent snacking and the consumption of foods and beverages high in calories (carbonated drinks) and low in nutrients (junk food) throughout the school day tend to have more overweight and obese children than those that discourage these practices. Also, the energy levels and mental performance of children eating junk food can decrease as the school day progresses.

More alarming are the rising obesity rates in the past 25 years. According to a study done by Statistics Canada in 2005, three per cent of children aged two to 17 were obese in 1978/79. This jumped to eight per cent, or an estimated 500,000 children, by 2004. The study also found that overweight or obese conditions in adolescence often continue into adulthood. Children and adolescents who reported eating fruits and vegetables five or more times a day were substantially less likely to be overweight or obese than those who consumed them less frequently. This translated to 41 per cent (about four in ten) children and adolescents who eat fruit and vegetables five times a day or more. Furthermore, among children aged six to 17, the likelihood of being overweight or obese tended to rise with time spent watching TV, playing video games or using the computer.

So what are the long-term effects? The Heart and Stroke Foundation believes that weight gain during adolescence and young adult life may be one of the most important determinants of future development of heart disease and stroke. So it’s important to eat a healthy diet from a young age and continue doing so throughout life to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Between the ages of six and 12, children learn to make decisions and make more choices on their own; developing eating habits and attitudes they may carry with them for the rest of their lives. Add peer pressure to the mix, especially in early teen years, and it becomes an uphill battle.

Even the recently revised Canada Food Guide urges people to increase their intake of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. It also recommends dairy alternatives like fortified soy beverages and meat alternatives like beans, lentils and tofu.

It’s also important to pack an interesting lunch so that children do not fall into the fast food (or corner store) trap where they can easily fill up on sugary, fatty or salty food.

These are all healthy choices:
• Whole wheat breads, bagels, pita, tortillas, rice cakes, oatmeal cookies
• Apples, pears, bananas, oranges, melons, strawberries
• Carrots, peppers, tomatoes, celery, lettuce, cucumber
• Chicken, turkey, salmon, tuna
• Water, fruit or vegetable juice or low-fat white milk
• Yogurt, cheese, tofu
• Soups, stews, casseroles, chilli

For an interesting school lunch, parents should try mixing up different colours of food to stir the senses and give some life to a routine lunch, i.e. a pickle on top of the sandwich. Having food that feels different also helps, like crunchy vegetables or smooth tastes like pudding or peaches. Letting a child help create the lunch; switching between hot to cold lunches; giving drink choices; and tossing in a new fruit, cheese or vegetable once a week will all help keep meals alive. Like everything in life, diversity yields the best results. Both parents and teachers must help children realize that eating healthy foods and taking part in regular exercise makes for a healthy weight. Simply telling children to eat their fruits and vegetables may not be enough to encourage healthy eating when other less healthy foods with little nutritional value are easily available. Vending machines at schools should also offer high quality healthy food at decent prices.

Teaching children about healthy choices early on can help them prevent the risk of heart attack or stroke as a — gasp — grown-up!

References

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