Professor Nicholas Freudenberg, Hunter College, Shares Insight on School Nutrition
Education Update (EU): What is your concept of an ideal school food program?
Nicholas Freudenberg (NF): The ideal school food program serves children tasty, healthy food; works to reduce both hunger and food insecurity on the one hand and obesity on the other; and seeks to develop lifetime healthy eating.
EU: What do you perceive as the greatest challenges to a successful school food program?
NF: The greatest challenge is convincing school and elected officials that school food programs are an essential part of education and that investing in school food and nutrition education programs now contributes to better educational and health outcomes and saves taxpayer money.
EU: How have New York City public schools benefited (or not) from national programs looking to improve childhood health and nutrition? Which programs stand out?
NF: Many national programs help New York City — and other — schools to develop model programs to, for example, learn to cook in school, grow food in their school yard, or visit local farmers markets. These programs show that different approaches to school food are possible but few have been expanded to cover many schools or serve the children with greatest needs.
EU: Are there any national initiatives you would like to highlight as being particularly worthy of being implemented in New York City public schools?
NF: Some advocates have called for free school lunch for all — an effort to remove the income testing that stigmatizes school food in many places, reduces participation, and increases the administrative costs. In other places — small local efforts as far as I know, not national ones — parents or food groups have worked to prevent national food and beverage companies that profit by promoting unhealthy food to children from any participation in school food programs.
EU: Does the demographics of a neighborhood have an impact on school food?
NF: Neighborhoods have an effect on school food in two ways. In poor neighborhoods, more children are eligible for free or subsidized school meals, giving the school a larger and more stable base of funding for school meals. On the other hand, poor communities often have more food outlets that serve unhealthy food, providing competition for school food programs. If school food programs don’t serve food that is appealing to children and young people these other food outlets will win their business.
EU: How do you think nutrition should be reformed on college campuses?
NF: Most universities regard their food programs as revenue streams for ancillary services rather than as programs that can improve current and future health of their students. Rates of obesity and food-related health problems are soaring among college students, as with other populations, making this focus particularly problematic. College food services should provide students with healthy, tasty and affordable food.
EU: Can you share your thoughts on budgetary constraints and nutrition?
NF: In our current economy, unhealthy food is usually more available and cheaper than healthier food. We need to develop local, state and national policies that turn that around. By subsidizing healthy products instead of unhealthy ones, taxing unhealthy products like soda, forcing food companies to pay for the health-related costs of products they promote and using public institutions like school, child care programs and universities to promote healthy eating, we can develop food polices that support rather than undermine the nation’s health. #
Nicholas Freudenberg, Ph.D., M.P.H., is the Distinguished Professor of Urban Public Health at Hunter College, City University of New York.