One preschool aims to fix food deserts with nutrition education

Feb 6, 2017

If you follow State of Opportunity regularly, then you know we've talked quite a bit about food deserts – places where fresh fruits and vegetables are in short supply.

There has been a lot of talk about ways to fix food deserts, including building more grocery stores and allowing low-income consumers to use food stamps online to buy food and have it delivered to their doors.

But I recently read a piece in The Atlantic about a preschool in Memphis, Tennessee that aims to prevent the problem early on, with education.

Nutrition is a key component of the curriculum at Perea Preschool, where most students come from impoverished families. But students aren't merely fed healthier foods; they are introduced with explanation or exploration. Students get to do things like touch or taste a raw pumpkin before its meat is used for pumpkin pie or its seeds are roasted. According to The Atlantic:

A child that graduates from Perea can explain the health benefits, taste, and texture of every food they’ve been introduced to. The preschool’s philosophy is that while pie itself isn’t the epitome of nutritional perfection, the concept of food not coming from cans encourages the use of fresh ingredients and the avoidance of preservatives. Talking to the children about foods instead of making them eat new foods without a choice or explanation is why students want to eat healthy while other schools have had trouble achieving similar results

The four-year-olds learn the benefits of eating healthy. But they also learn about the emotional side of wellness, which helps with the overall health of a child, such as dealing effectively with conflict. And students' parents are learning, too. Vicki Sallis Murrell is a professor of counseling, educational psychology, and research at the University of Memphis. She told The Atlantic:

Parents tend to parent as they were parented. With education, Perea parents learn different tactics to take with our children. For example, we teach parents that punishment is not effective for long-term behavioral change, and can, in fact, promote avoidance behaviors and secrecy. Instead, parents are taught about other ways to deal with problem behaviors, such as refocusing attention and talking with their children about their emotions. The purpose is to help the children develop the cognitive processes required to self-regulate. But if the parents don’t know about their options, then they can’t make change.

Research shows that people living in food deserts are more likely to develop health problems like diabetes and obesity. And food deserts contribute significantly to obesity among low-income preschoolers, according to PBS.

But growing evidence shows that simply making healthier food available to poor families doesn't mean they are going to develop more healthful diets. According to Slate:

Earlier research suggesting that better fresh-food access improves diet and would therefore improve the health of people living in poverty was drawn from small samples or looked at store availability in narrow geographical slices—often without information about how or where the people who lived there shopped. 

And that's where educators like those at Perea Preschool come in. They hope to educate students and their families to encourage healthier choices. According to Murrell:

We have a short time to reach both kids and parents. As children enter middle childhood, they tend to become more interested in other kinds of play, such as rule-based games. They become less influenced by what adults think or want. By adolescence, many kids will do the opposite of what an adult expects or wants, just to test boundaries. That makes introducing new concepts, including conflict-resolution tactics, learning approaches, and foods early important.