Healthy eating in schools needs collaboration between parents, schools, community

Photo: ABC7

By Paul Day, DC Central Kitchen

When the first bell of the new school year rang on Monday morning, DC Central Kitchen was already busy turning local produce into healthy, scratch-cooked meals at 10 Washington schools.

The 5,500 breakfasts, lunches, and dinners we prepare each day nourish nearly 3,000 low-income children while generating sustainable revenue for our poverty-fighting programs.

School food is our biggest social enterprise, but it doesn’t just raise dollars. It raises awareness too, serving as an inspiring model for how nonprofits can be better businesses and how businesses can be better community members.

In light of this week’s March on Washington to commemorate the important, but yet unfinished work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, it is time to remember that structural inequality remains a painful fact of life for far too many. The repercussions of racial and economic injustice run deep, causing not only hunger, but the perpetuation of a truly unjust food system in D.C. and cities across America.

Nearly 13 percent of District residents are still considered “food insecure,” but this number masks gross racial inequalities. African Americans in D.C. are unemployed at more than twice the rate of white residents, and fully 40 percent of African American children are at risk of going hungry.

Persistent poverty has restricted the access of entire neighborhoods to affordable healthy food options, including the fresh produce so many others take for granted at their favorite supermarket.

Ultimately, issues of economic and social justice are strongly tied to food access – and education is perhaps the most critical battleground in the fight for equality. We know the crucial role that nutrition plays in educational outcomes. Children that lack access to food, especially nutritious fresh food, are less likely to succeed in school.

The exciting news is that DC Central Kitchen has become the city’s laboratory for testing meaningful solutions for these problems. In low-income neighborhoods where nutritious food is hard to find, our efforts are changing the way our community eats.

We’re reinforcing our work in schools by partnering with 30 D.C. corner stores to provide healthy snacks at affordable prices so that when kids go home, they can continue to make healthy choices. We’re also working with the DC Department of Health to educate low-income parents so their households can take full advantage of these innovative programs.

Detractors often say that kids will never eat healthy food, that changing eating habits is an impossible task. But we’re already seeing these amazing transformations where kids not only enjoy our healthy meals, but are bringing it home.

Through cooking demonstrations and taste tests, we’re introducing kids to new ways of eating that will greatly improve their quality of life. More students are choosing to eat our meals and throwing away less of their food—when it comes to our success, the proof is in the produce.

Perhaps most importantly, we’re getting at the root of hunger and failing food systems by taking on the root cause of poverty. The meals we produce for the schools are largely prepared by graduates of our Culinary Job Training program, which empowers unemployed, marginalized men and women to change their lives and find stable employment.

We’ve hired more than 60 of these graduates at living wages with full benefits, and they are ones bringing healthy, dignified food to underserved neighborhoods. Most of our graduates are from the very communities we serve. DC Central Kitchen isn’t a bunch of do-gooders handing out groceries or cups of soup. We’re job creators making lasting investments in our hometown.

With the intergenerational cycle of poverty, hunger, and poor health unbroken in far too many families, it’s impossible to say that we’ve fulfilled Dr. King’s vision of real social equality. Food, no matter how healthy it is, will never be a solution by itself. But DC Central Kitchen is proving that it can be a powerful tool in nourishing a brighter future.