One of the areas of work that is near to my heart, but that we don’t fund at the Gates Foundation, is helping children get nutritious meals. I was reminded of this work when I read Katrina Heron’s recent blog. After watching the 2004 documentary “Super Size Me,” I was so moved by the problem of school food and nutrition that I vowed to work in that space someday and make a difference in what children eat. I got my chance when I ran the Chez Panisse Foundation, now The Edible Schoolyard Project. I began working there just as the reports about diabetes began to conclude that one in three adults would end up with diabetes by 2050 if current trends continued and that African Americans and Latinos are at a higher risk for developing Type 2 diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, 3,600 young people are newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes each year, and a person diagnosed with diabetes by age 50 dies six years earlier than someone without diabetes.
While we worry about academic preparation, it’s worth pausing to think about what kids eat every day. It affects not only their ability to think, but also their mood and their long-term health. It’s not rocket science: you are what you eat. When we were trying to change school lunch in the Berkeley Unified School District, it was an uphill battle to try and move away from frozen food and actually cook real food from scratch. I remember testifying to Congress that we only had freezers in some cafeterias because all they did was reheat the food, and how we had to actually teach the cafeteria staff how to use knives because they had never actually prepared food for lunch. Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters (my personal heroes) have done so much in this space. We shouldn’t forget that students can’t learn if they’re hungry or if their diets are so poor that they don’t have the energy to make it through the school day.