Feeding Our KIds the Right Foods… and Inspiring Them to Eat!

Schools around the country are taking bold steps to add whole, local, and healthy foods to their school meals.

Feeding our kids the right foods...and inspiring them to eat!

Many schools and school districts around the country are taking bold steps to increase whole, local, and healthy food in their school meals.

Still, getting kids to eat these foods can sometimes be a challenge. Helping students learn about food, food systems, and health issues in the gardens, kitchens, and classrooms alongside improving school meals may be just the recipe we need. A study at Teachers College Columbia University in New York City in the mid-1990s, the basis of my doctoral dissertation, sheds light on the importance of combining school meal change with classroom curriculum.

In 1994, Toni Liquori, a professor in the program in nutrition at Teachers College, wanted to increase vegetables and whole grains in school lunches in New York City, and to find out what it would take to get students excited about and motivated to eat these "new" foods. During this project, we introduced 13 foods (sweet potatoes, vegetable salad, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, collard greens, winter squash, brown rice, whole wheat bread, rye bread, pumpernickel bread, whole wheat pita, and beans) into the school lunch menus at two schools. We introduced classroom curricula on food at the same time. The project set out to answer the following questions:

  • Is experiencing new, healthy foods repeatedly in the cafeteria sufficient to have students accept and eat the foods?
  • Is classroom education necessary for students to accept the new, healthful foods?
  • If classroom education is necessary, what type is most effective?

Thirty-nine classes of students between kindergarten and sixth grade participated, divided into four groups of approximately 10 classes each. The students in all four groups had multiple exposures to the targeted vegetables and whole grains during school lunch — at least one targeted food a day for five months.

What differentiated the groups was their exposure to classroom curricula. The first group received no intervention in the classroom. A second group received a series of classroom lessons, called the Food and Environment Lessons (FEL), which taught them about the importance of eating vegetables and whole grains, but included no classroom experiences with food. The third group received a series of classroom lessons called Cookshop (CS), which made direct connections to school lunch through having students cook the same vegetable and whole grain recipes in the classroom that they were served in the lunchroom. While they cooked and ate the food as a class, the students also learned about the food, its nutritional value, history, and the science of plants. Both the FEL and CS lessons were engaging and hands-on. The final group participated in both CS and FEL.

We evaluated how much of the targeted foods the students ate before and after the program. The students who had only the cafeteria changes without curriculum in the classroom did not increase the amount of the targeted foods they ate; at the end of the program, they threw away most of the targeted foods, as they had at the beginning. Simply having the foods in the cafeteria — even if they were offered repeatedly — was not enough to inspire the kids eat the new foods. The students who received the Food and Environment Lessons ate a little bit more of the targeted foods after receiving the curriculum. But the students who received Cookshop (with or without FEL lessons) significantly increased their intake of the targeted foods. Additionally, the students who received CS had the greatest knowledge gains; the greatest increased preferences for whole, plant foods; and gains in their confidence that they had acquired basic cooking skills. These outcomes suggest that hands-on working with and learning about food — specifically cooking and eating healthy foods — was a necessary ingredient to motivate students to eat new, healthful offerings in the lunchroom.

Since this initial evaluation more than a decade ago, we have continued our work in New York City schools. We have revised the Cookshop program so that it is geared toward primary school students. Today, approximately 370 New York City public school classrooms implement the Cookshop program through the broader umbrella of the SchoolFood Plus1 program, which is housed in a nonprofit agency, FoodChange, and focuses on developing new recipes and supporting classroom curricula.

Additionally, the Teachers College programs in nutrition education and science education have worked together since 1997 to develop an inquiry- and standards-based science curriculum for upper elementary and middle school students. The Linking Food and the Environment (LiFE) Curriculum Series2, includes the following modules: Growing Food; Farm to Table & Beyond; Food & Health; and Choice, Control, & Change. LiFE is rich in direct experiences with food that include cooking, gardening, analyzing food systems, and collecting and analyzing personal food and activity data. LiFE is also part of the SchoolFood Plus curricula offerings, with 40 New York City public school classrooms receiving LiFE through this program. The National Gardening Association is publishing LiFE. Growing Food, the first module to be published, is available at http://www.kidsgardeningstore.com/11-3300.html.

Finally, as a way to bring this work together and to foster combining healthful school meals with classroom food curricula, Teachers College and the Center for Ecoliteracy (CEL) have teamed up to link CEL’s Rethinking School Lunch planning framework for school food and curricular reform with the LiFE Curriculum Series in a joint program, Rethinking Food, Health & the Environment: Making Learning Connections, funded through the W. K. Kellogg foundation. Through learning about making positive school food and curricular changes and implementing LiFE in their classrooms, schools participating in the joint program will become Rethinking Food schools that will be able to provide students with consistent and positive messages throughout the school community. The result, we anticipate, will be students equipped to make food and lifestyle choices, in and out of school, that will promote personal, community, and ecological health.


1 SchoolFood Plus is supported through the Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program of the United States Department of Agriculture.

2 The development, implementation, and evaluation of LiFE has been funded by three Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) grants from the National Center of Research Resources, a component of the National Institutes of Health, funding period: 1997-2009.