Often the most innovative, honest and forward-thinking perspectives on how to improve school food come from the students themselves. As the ones closest to the action, students are leading the charge for a healthier menu and sparking conversations in cafeterias across America.
The Earth Day Network had been working on a number of initiatives to promote healthier school food, with various student engagement elements, such as a poster contest encouraging students to depict what a healthy lunch looks like. This year, the network is launching its first-annual Sustainable School Food Journalism Awards, where intrepid student reporters report on nutrition and food issues inside their school with input from their peers.
“We wanted to get high school students to learn about these issues from each other,” says John Maleri, Associate Director of Earth Day at the Earth Day Network. “We wanted them to utilize journalism as a way for students to talk to other students and start a dialogue.”
Maleri says the contest came about as the team was evaluating the new set of standards for school lunches that the United States Department of Agriculture proposed in 2010. Contest organizers specifically wanted students to talk to each other about nutrition issues and be a resource for one another and have their voices heard instead of having an outside adult come in for an initiative. School newspapers, as a “by students, for students” resource students use to stay informed and voice opinions, proved an effective outlet.
Students have brought some great ideas and pressing topics to the table. One issue that has frequently recurred in assignments is the new calorie limit imposed on school lunches, which students approach with varying perspectives, as student reporters understand the pressing issue of adolescent obesity, but are hearing from their peers that they don’t feel satisfied with the lower-calorie meals. Maleri says student reporters should look at all areas of an issue, but student perspective may be the key to making further improvements.
“We’re encouraging them not to be totally critical and look at it in context,” Maleri says. “And students have brought some really interesting ideas to make it successful.”
So far, the Earth Day Network has received responses from all over the country.“Just yesterday, I received an email from a student in Puerto Rico,” Maleri says. “The contest is open to all U.S. high school students, and we’d love to have everyone participate. We didn’t imagine it would reach this far, and they’re asking if they can contribute in Spanish. The response is really wonderful.”
The competition is open for high school students ages 13-18, who have written about healthy, sustainable school food for their school newspapers. Best-selling author and food journalist Michael Pollan will select the winners, and the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where Pollan is an adjunct faculty member, is one of the partners of the competition.
Six finalists will receive cash prizes--$1500 for first prize, $1,000 for second, $500 for third and $300 each to three fourth-place finalists--along with $200 to support their journalism class or student newspaper. The competition is a fantastic opportunity for exposure for budding writers as well--the winning articles will be published at the Earth Day Network’s website and broadcast out to their followers all around the world. Contest deadline is February 28, 2013, and students can submit their articles on the Earth Day Network website.
“We’re looking to spread the contest as far and wide as we can,” Maleri said. “Students are getting excited to write these articles.”