Getting kids to eat vegetables can be a daunting task, but with the scary rise of obesity, diabetes and other weight-related health problems in children, a growing number of parents, volunteers and organizations are up to the challenge.
In 2005, after witnessing children's poor eating habits, Nancy Easton co-founded Wellness in the Schools (WITS), a non-profit organization dedicated to helping kids learn healthy nutrition, fitness and lifestyle habits that they can take home and share with their parents.
"When I was working in the Lower East Side, children would come with a bag of chips and a bottle of soda and that was breakfast. They couldn't walk a flight of stairs without stopping to catch their breath. They couldn't focus in class, so we'd sit in our teachers meetings talking about reading, writing and arithmetic, but we'd also talk about their health," Easton told CBS News.
In recent years, childhood obesity has become a national crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. Obese children face greater risks for developing diabetes, heart disease and other health problems, and children who become obese are more likely to remain obese as adults. If things stay as they are, this may be the first generation of children to not outlive their parents.
Easton is not alone in wanting to shift the eating habits of America's children. The alarming statistics have also prompted a strong response at the government level to get kids healthier while they're in school. First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative is "dedicated to solving the problem of childhood obesity in a generation." At the initiative's launch in 2010, President Barack Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum creating the first-ever Task Force on Childhood Obesity. Their research identified a lack of parental education in nutrition, a sedentary lifestyle, availability of high-caloric foods, and the scarcity of healthful food options as contributing factors to the obesity crisis.
Understanding that some of these contributing factors may be ameliorated with more knowledge, some believe that the revival of food education in the classroom is the solution.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author Michael Moss explains, "We used to teach kids home economics. Girls and to a lesser extent boys were taught how to shop, how to cook, how to be mindful of food. And we lost that in the 1980s... in part because other more pressing issues came along. Home Ec teachers began teaching kids about teenage pregnancy, how to get a job when you get out of school, and food sort of fell by the wayside. And I really think that in order to make a change and fight obesity you've got to bring back food education. But in a really smart way, in a clever way that gets kids excited."
Research published by the CDC supports Moss' theory that getting kids involved in the kitchen, through cooking classes or at home, may make them more likely to choose healthy foods.
Wellness in the Schools engages their captive classroom audience by sneaking in health education via high-energy, hands-on food labs taught by kid-friendly chefs.
"It's so important to start young with these children and to start with these skills," says Easton. "It's a hands-on lesson where they each have a knife which, as you saw, was the size of a real chef's knife. And we start with those knives from kindergarten on. So they have this ownership and this pride of cooking something and of course wanting to eat it."
Today, WITS programs serve approximately 30,000 public school children across New York City, Florida and Kentucky, and they hope to continue their outreach in other states.
The potential for these programs in schools to combat the childhood obesity epidemic seems promising, but more long-term research will be needed to see if classroom-based cooking and nutrition programs have a lasting effect.