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Pundit’s Mailbag –
Rutgers' VanVranken Offers Upbeat Info On Farm-to-School And School Garden Programs,
But Do These Well-Meaning Efforts Change Consumption In Adults?

Richard VanVranken is an astute analyst and has contributed to the Pundit in pieces such as these:

Pundit Mailbag — Getting A Handle On Direct-to-Consumer Programs

Pundit’s Mailbag — Letters Pour In On CSPI’s Highly Deceptive Riskiest Foods List

Troublesome Traceability Letters From PMA Veiled As Being Sent From Buyers

Neither United Nor PMA Represent Pruduction Agriculture

Now he weighs in on a subject close to his base at Rutgers but with national implications:

In your response to Beth Feehan’s discussion on New Jersey defining ‘local’ — Pundit’s Mailbag — Jersey Fresh: Local Before Local Was Local! Can Vic Savanello And Beth Feehan Find Common Ground? Do Consumers Actually Need An Official Definition For Everything?you took a couple of shots at the farm-to-school efforts in these comments:

‘This all being said, it is worth noting that there is a large gap between what we wish were so and what we know is so. To mention a few points:

1) We have little evidence that getting more produce into schools actually makes children more likely to consume large amounts of fruits and vegetables when they are older.

2) We have little evidence that eating more fresh produce as children reduces obesity when these children become adults.

Well, the farm-to-school folks are firing back or at least showing some evidence backing their claims (which is actually great news for the produce industry!). This just in: Healthy kids are common sense not a trend in which the comments suggest some positive results:

Fruit and vegetable consumption is going up
“We’re having a fruit and vegetable shortage because we’ve increased consumption so much,’ says Donna Martin of her schools in rural Georgia that feature local produce on the lunch menu. Studies show that farm to school activities improve early childhood and K-12 eating behaviors, including choosing healthier options in the cafeteria, consuming more fruits and vegetables at school and at home, consuming less unhealthy foods and sodas, and increasing physical activity. A study published just this month in the journal Childhood Obesity confirmed again that students are eating more healthful foods such as fruits and vegetables, and that plate waste is not increasing.

Obesity rates are going down
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation highlights cities, counties and states that have started to see their childhood obesity rates go down in recent years. They’ve observed that communities that take a comprehensive approach are making progress. Farm to school is a comprehensive approach. Not only are students exposed to healthy eating in school, but food education also travels home. Doreen Simonds, Food Services Director for Waterford School District in Ortonville, Mich., explains, “We hear back from kids and parents that they are trying new foods at home, going to farmers markets now, and using the Double Food Bucks too.” Through farm to school practices, we are laying the groundwork for reversing years of unhealthy lifestyles. 

Education is key to fostering healthy choices
Farm to school programs provide experiential education opportunities for kids to taste, try, and eventually like new foods — to make choices for themselves. Farm to school is about creating positive food experiences for kids, with farm tours, cooking demos, school gardens, and farmers in the classroom. As quoted in the Huffington Post, Dora Rivas with the Dallas Independent School District — the second-largest system in Texas and 14th-largest in the country — has seen their farm to school program change everything from what kids are eating to the way they are learning. ‘We feel like children remember and are more excited about trying new foods when they actually experience it,’ Rivas said. ‘School gardens are a great way to introduce them to new foods.’

Education is key to facilitating behavior change, and change requires time and patience.

When I (we) were kids, the American Lung Association was the leader with PR campaigns against smoking and its association with health problems. It took a long time to get smoking rates significantly lower. Need I say more?

— Richard W. VanVranken
Agricultural Agent 1 / Professor
County Extension Department Head
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of
Atlantic County

Mays Landing, New Jersey  

P.S. This weekend, my wife found a reference to this work by your friend Prof. Brian Wansink at Cornell, too:

P.P.S.  I want to confess that I’ve been a little skeptical and maybe a little conflicted myself, but for full disclosure, I’m following this topic because that daughter of mine that you highlighted here (she won gold at those World Equestrian Games on 10/10/10, by the way) is now working for FoodCorps (for which Beth Feehen is co-sponsor here in New Jersey) as a Service Member setting up school gardens and teaching nutrition at schools in southwestern New Jersey. I’ve watched the school garden program growing over the past dozen years or so and am glad to be seeing some proof of positive results starting to emerge. 

The issue on which we originally engaged was whether it was necessary to have a law that defined local, with retailers paying penalties for errors and whether, if so, it made sense to define local by a political entity, such as a state, when out-of-state produce is often, geographically speaking, more local that in-state produce.

The fact that there are differences of opinion on these issues does not mean those who oppose such penalties or politically based definitions are opposed to local, to school gardens or any number of interesting things.

The Jr. Pundits attend a school with an incredible garden, and if you watch this video about it, you will see lots of good reasons to encourage this trend, for example, planting and growing helps develop an appreciation for the work farmers do:

SAGE Dining Organic Garden – Students Growing Strong from Pine Crest School in Boca Raton, Florida.

So we can acknowledge that there are good reasons to encourage these trends without overstating the evidence.

We’ve run pieces on top programs, such as piece titled School Nutrition Success Cries For Research and, consistently, we find problems with the research.

First, the plural of anecdote is not data, and most of these reports are examples of someone doing something interesting. Unfortunately, you can’t extrapolate from these anecdotes.

Second, there are rarely any control groups. If you study children over, say, three years, and note an increase in produce consumption, one can’t just attribute that to one’s program. Perhaps it is this program or perhaps the children just got bigger! You really need a control group to be able to surmise anything with much authority.

Third, rarely are these studies double-blind. Often, the school children know they are being studied and that may influence their behavior, and often the ones reporting that the programs are brilliant successes are the exact people who promoted starting the programs.

Fourth, the studies rarely go out of school. It is nice to know that if you give items away in school or create social pressure to eat produce grown by one’s friends that children will eat more produce in school. But it is very possible that a child will compensate and eat less produce after school. A child who always had an apple when he got home may not want to eat an apple, if he was handed one in 6th period.

Fifth, the studies are very, very, very, short term. Note our statements:

1) We have little evidence that getting more produce into schools actually makes children more likely to consume large amounts of fruits and vegetables when they are older.

2) We have little evidence that eating more fresh produce as children reduces obesity when these children become adults.

Both have to do not with the immediate consequence but the long term consequences. Most studies are small and cheap — following children for a short time to determine if exposing them to gardens in lower school increases produce consumption in adulthood or even a few years after the efforts cease is basically never done.

Sixth, many of the pronouncements are just PR.They are not published in peer-reviewed journals. They are just some school announcing, based on at best an anecdote, that the program is a big success.

Right now, all this is hot and helping the produce industry, but if we don’t do good research with control groups over long periods of time, there will be a difficult job of getting resources to sustain and expand these programs. Forewarned is forearmed.


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