Dr. Steven Gortmaker is a guest writer from the Harvard School of Public Health’s Prevention Research Centre
Getting kids excited about food and nutrition is going to be crucial to the success of a food revolution. Kids need to be interested in and excited about ways to get healthy if they’re going to maintain those habits in the long term, and they need the environments in which they spend their time to support healthier eating and more exercise.
The home is a key environment for teaching healthy habits, but it is just one of the many spaces in which children spend their time. From preschools and schools to organized sports, after-school programs, and summer camps, healthy eating and physical activity must also be integrated into the places where children learn and play—but unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.
At the Harvard School of Public Health’s Prevention Research Center (HPRC), we work with communities to overcome the disparities and barriers that hinder the promotion and practice of healthy habits. Through collaboration with state and local governments as well as key community partners, we develop, implement, and evaluate programs to improve nutrition and physical activity of children and youth. Our goal is to prevent the chronic diseases that are linked to excess weight gain and inactivity, like diabetes, asthma, and heart disease. The HPRC focuses on providing research to create evidence-based tools for change.
Ensuring that kids learn to be healthy in both school and out-of-school settings starts with creating healthy spaces through availability of and access to better foods and beverages. This includes cooking with, serving, and tasting fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy beverages, rather than sugary and salty snacks and sugary drinks. Something as simple as making sure that water is easily and freely available in all schools is a small but crucial step to cultivating a healthy environment. Healthy habits can and should be part of education—with a good mix of lessons, tools, resources, and interactive assessments, teachers and program leaders can make sure they have all they need to practice the healthy living lessons they are promoting.
Emphasizing nutrition both inside and outside of the home sends the clear message that it is important to engage in healthy habits throughout all aspects of daily life. If parents are working to get kids excited about healthy food at home, those behaviors still need to be reinforced throughout a child’s day. And if schools are offering healthy lunches, snacks, and frequent opportunities for physical activity, but parents serve unhealthy meals and beverages and encourage television watching rather than exercise in the home, kids will wonder whose lead they should follow. Any environment that promotes unhealthy behaviors can leave an impact. So whether you are a parent, caregiver, teacher, program director, or volunteer, let’s expand our focus and ensure this food revolution reaches every moment of a child’s day, ensuring that the places where kids live, learn, and play are ALL healthy spaces.