Thursday, February 14, 2019

Nutrition Education Advocates Educate City Council Members on the Importance of Nutrition Education in Public Schools

This post is written by Moria Byrne-Zaaloff, MPH, Program Coordinator for Creating Healthy Schools and Communities at Bronx Health REACH. 

The energy in the room was palpable as I entered the New York City Council hearing room surrounded by advocates, councilmember staff and a flock of media corralled in the corner. I was there to testify on behalf of Bronx Health REACH, alongside other advocates, teachers, parents and students from across the five boroughs on the importance of nutrition education in schools. The hearing was in response to the Nutrition and Education Reporting bill sponsored by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council Member Mark Treyger, Chair of the Education Committee and supported by many in the nutrition education community.

Currently, information on nutrition education programming in schools isn’t publically available. Bronx Health REACH and other organizations viewed this hearing as an opportunity to highlight the importance of nutrition education and the barriers to it in New York City public schools. The Bill would require the New York City Department of Education to submit an annual report of food and nutrition education classes, conducted by school teachers/staff or external partners in each New York City public school to the New York City Council. The report would account for the frequency and total minutes of instruction, number of students taught, total instruction time by teachers and outside organizations, and number of school teachers/staff who received training in each NYC public school.

Minutes before the hearing began advocates and the co-sponsors of the proposed legislation, Councilman Mark Treyger and Manhattan Borough President Gayle Brewer, gathered for a rally on the steps of City Hall declaring food and nutrition education essential to student health. Councilman Treyger spoke of the gaps in our current education system including a lack of professional development training. He cited the commissioner’s report from 2015 which showed that “over 90 percent of our educators teaching health and wellness are not even licensed to teach health.”

While this data may be remarkably different after the rollout of HealthEd Works, a promising pilot program of the DOE to bring nutrition education programming, professional development training, and resources to 500 public schools in the next few years, parents deserve to know whether their children are currently receiving the same educational programming as resource-rich public schools.

At the hearing, Councilmembers Mark Levine, Brad Lander, Andy King, and Debi Rose asked questions and spoke in support of the proposed legislation, but it was the voices of the students, teachers and advocates that were the most powerful. Maria Mohammed, a Bronx high school graduate, spoke about how students are not being fully educated about the harms of processed food. “What are we going to tell them 5 years from now? We are sorry that we failed you and need to do better for the next generation.” Pam Cook of Teacher’s College spoke on behalf of Meredith Hill, Assistant Principal of Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering who wrote, “When we educate students about what they put in their bodies, they gain power--the power to be educated consumers making healthy choices.”

As a public health professional working in NYC for the past couple of years, I spoke about the constant frustration and burn-out I have seen in the teachers working at our Bronx partner schools who face the challenges of not having enough time to fit nutrition education in the schedule for all students, vague guidelines from the NYC DOE regarding how many hours or lessons per semester should be dedicated to nutrition education in elementary and middle school, and insufficient professional development training in nutrition education. Working in neighborhoods with limited funding, capacity, training and resources leaves many of the energetic and self-motivated teachers ill-equipped to meet students’ needs for nutrition education.

Seeing the level of enthusiasm and commitment in the hearing room to ensure that all NYC public school children receive adequate nutrition education to equip them to make healthy food choices, reawakened the hope of a better future for NYC schoolchildren. On a separate note, seeing the civic process at work  made me feel grateful to live in a country where your voice can be heard.

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