[The following is taken from the Introduction to the interns’ report.]
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Rethinking the Food System
The current food system is one of the largest contribu- tors to global climate change and environmental destruction. Agriculture emits one third of global greenhouse emissions and consumes 70% of our freshwater resources.1 The food system that is depleting our natural resources relies heavily on large industrial farms — farms that use practices such as tilling and heavy use of synthetic fertilizers, both of which are very harmful to the environment as they deplete soil nutrients and release high amounts of carbon emissions. Farms of this size require the clearing of major forests, which should act as a space to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, but once they are deforested, they begin to act as a source of carbon emis- sions. Food is then picked and typically packaged into plastic packaging, then shipped across state and sometimes national borders, releasing tons of carbon emissions. In total, agricultural landscapes occupy about 40% of earth’s land cover. The majority of this space is not used to grow food for humans but for the animals that humans eat.2
The food we eat comes from this system and has been shown to be detrimental to our health. To maximize yield, industrial farm production utilizes synthetic fertilizers and pesticides with little to no regard for human or planetary health. Pesticides can have severe negative side effects, espe- cially in children,3 as they have a higher concentration in smaller bodies. Industrial farms also produce foods with low nutritional densities due to the depleted soil and from picking the food prematurely so they can be shipped longer distances.4
We are in dire need of a food system that treats our bodies and our planet better. This is possible by changing the food system into one that focuses more on local, regenerative, and organic agriculture. Planting regionally native fruits and vegetables allows people to eat fresh foods high in nutrients that will support their health. Also, these organic systems use 45% less energy and produce 40% fewer carbon emissions.5 According to the EAT-Lancet Commission, a whole food, plant-based diet is best for our bodies and the planet.6,7
With all of this in mind, the Alliance for Sustainable Communities initiated a comprehensive project called “Rethinking the Food System” where student interns have made critical connections between food, health, sustainability, environmentalism, and social justice.
Schools and Food
While there are many aspects to the food system that need to be improved, the project team found that K-12 schools appear to be a great space to encourage change. Educational systems pride themselves in being at the forefront of change, as their students are the leaders of the future.
Not only do students deserve better food, but a nutritious and delicious meal served by the school improves academic performance. Despite this evidence, the health of the new generation is currently being compromised.
School lunch is not the only problem. The current nutrition curriculum covers major topics, but some key points are neglected. Most schools do not teach students about the importance of eating organic and local food, meat and dairy alternatives, or the dangers of pesticides. Incorporating such topics would help to increase overall wellness.
A detailed evaluation of the Berkeley School Lunch Initiative8 discovered that although many schools have a strong wellness policy, there are certain, essential areas of the policy that are either lacking or nonexistent. The research throughout the project showed that in order for students to thrive, there must be an emphasis on farm-to-school and local food, hands-on school gardening, more time for lunch, and waste reduction through composting and recycling.
The key idea is to show how all aspects of the food system contribute to sustainability; climate, processed food, organic food, and numerous other matters collectively impact the future of the Lehigh Valley.
The current food system reflects racism, classism, and other major inequalities. Imagine enhancing equity and belonging in the community through student participation in group activities such as gardening, cooking diverse cuisines, and prioritizing sustainable waste reduction. Students would build relationships with one another that highlight their cultural differences, exemplifying how diversity and unity go hand-in-hand. The process of inclusion builds a food system that encourages food sovereignty, accessibility, and nutritionally-secure foods. By adopting a school key topics in depth, schools can simultaneously combat social injustice. Teaching students how purchasing local food directly supports members of the community, about government food assistance programs — and why they are necessary — while feeding them diverse cuisines at lunch are just three ways that schools can promote social justice. By discussing these sometimes uncomfortable topics, schools help break the cycle of a food system that is no longer working, giving students the tools to build a stronger, more just food system that advocates for inclusion.
Teachers, administrators, and parents can inspire students to want to reclaim their food system through meals that utilize local food, more time to each such meals, a well- rounded education with a focus on intersectionality and waste reduction, and hands-on experiences that immerse them into a taste of what change can look like. Schools can and should provide students with the knowledge and tools to develop a more sustainable perspective on food, which will allow all aspects of student health to flourish long term.
In 2004, the Berkeley Unified School District created a School Lunch Initiative that included developing school gardens, class room lessons, and a change to healthier school food. The schools that participated in the initiative reported that their students were making healthier food choices, had a higher preference for fruits and vegetables, and scored higher on nutrition knowledge tests. This initiative emphasizes the importance of creating comprehensive change in schools and ensuring that the education students are receiving aligns with the school’s practices.
- Keys to a Strong Wellness Policy by Amanda Heron [Lafayette ’24], Sarah Mengel [Kutztown ’23], and Corena Munroe [Lehigh ’24]. Prepared as part of our Rethinking the Food System summer project and our ongoing Sustainability in Schools initiative.
— For student work on other aspects of sustainability,
see our Reports, Posters, & Articles by Interns page —