Aquaponics: Revolutionizing Elementary School Lunches
Childhood obesity is a growing problem in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years and that approximately 17% (12.5 million) of children and adolescents are obese. Elementary school cafeteria factors influence negative eating behaviors for elementary students. A study from the Journal of Human Resources concluded that school lunches are increasing the risk of childhood obesity. According to the same study those who ate school lunches regularly were 29% more likely to be obese compared to their peers who brought home lunch (Reade’s Digest). Aquaponics, a sustainable system that produces healthy, organic food, would be a positive investment for all elementary schools in America because the scalable systems are cost-efficient and promote a well balanced diet. The current foods served by elementary school cafeteria are adversely affecting children’s health and contributing to many childhood diseases. This paper will provide evidence for this linkage of cafeteria food and childhood obesity, diseases associated with unhealthy lifestyles and explore possible solutions in connection to aquaponics.
Food served in elementary cafeterias contribute to childhood obesity as the food lacks in nutritional value and good quality. For instance, according to a CNN report, the number 1 meal served to children in U.S. schools is chicken fingers and French fries (2). Because the National School Lunch Program is grossly underfunded, most schools fail to meet regulatory standards and specific benchmarks. Schools cannot afford to buy local, organic produce (2) Thus, implementing an aquaponics system, in which the system is completely independent and renewable will prove cost-effective and most importantly, nutritious. Aquaponics is the hydroponic production of plants and the aquaculture production of fish in a controlled system that uses natural cycles to supply nitrogen and reusable water (Christensen 1). Cafeteria foods may also encourage unhealthy lifestyles because some lunchrooms across the country are supplying students with fast-food items like Chick-Fil-A sandwiches, slices from Pizza Hut, and Panda Express rice bowls (Education). In contrast, in an aquaponic system, tilapia and yellow perch are raised in large tanks of water as well as fresh, organic vegetables, fruits, spices and herbs. To compare food served in cafeterias and foods produced in an aquaponic system, aquapotic foods can provide a full meal, vegetables and protein, without any input (Visscher 355) The vegetables contain much more vitamins and nutrients as they intake the waste from the fish and use it as fertilizer. The concept of food security is defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in the following way: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Household food security is the application of this concept to the family level, with individuals within households as the focus of concern.”(Christensen 1) There is a strong linkage between the food children eat at school and the state of their health.
In this photo, you will see our students tending to 4 different aquaponics systems. All were made from recycled materials: a used UPC tote, old barrels cut in half, an old cattle drinking station, and a tub made with scrap wood with pond liner.
Secondly, there are numerous diseases, many of them preventable, associated with obesity and being overweight. Some diseases include cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes mellitus, cancer, osteoarthritis, atherosclerosis, work disability and sleep apnea (Neumark-Sztainer 929). Meals with fast-food characteristics are the cause of the increasing prevalence of obesity in society today. Foods that are served in large portions with a high energy density, and sugar-rich soft drink contain high dietary fat content and more calories of fat. High intake of trans fats lead to abdominal obesity and weight gain. There are many diseases linked to having an unhealthy lifestyle and being obese. To understand the science of obesity we must understand the metabolic processes that the body undergoes. When there is a lack of exercise, the chemical process of maintaining our body also become less efficient and our body thus becomes less efficient at processing calories. (Neumark-Sztainer 929) Genetics is also linked to obesity as genes are passed down from one generation to another to influence traits. Thus, it is likely that one may be predisposed to being overweight and develop a specific disease. Fat cells produce a hormone, leptin, which control the appetite and functions to tell the brain that the body is full and finished eating. Overweight individuals have higher levels of leptin that the average person and thus the messages sent by the hormone leptin never reach the brain and usually get lost in the process (Stice 660). These factors can lead to fatal diseases like Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol, stroke, arthritis, cancer, etc. For example, one can develop type 2 diabetes from over eating and indulging and foods with high sugars. A diet high in saturated fats and sugar can also lead to heart disease in which the heart is incapable of pumping correctly and the arteries are narrowed. Heart disease is responsible for 40% of deaths in the United States alone and is mostly due to obesity (World Health Organization).
You don't need to spend a lot of money to get started on aquaponics. In the photo above, a 50 gallon barrel was cut in half, one half was for the plants and the other for fish. In the second photo, a 50 slot garden tower was filled with cinder and strawberry roots and placed on a tub made with scrap wood. The strawberries fruited very quickly, but birds ate all of the strawberries, so we had to put up a net to protect the strawberries.
Thus, I propose a solution that elementary schools use aquaponics systems on their property since it would provide fresh organic food such as salads, in place of their frozen, canned, and processed food. Students would be able to learn that by eating healthy food they can prevent disease and promote a foundation for a healthy lifestyle. Growing organic food with aquaponics could also help inmates in prisons and patients in mental hospitals help improve their health with both nutritious meals and taking responsibilities to care for plants and fish. This could help cut down the tension and provide inmates and patients a career opportunity after they have been released.
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