It’s never too soon to start encouraging your young patients to adopt healthy habits—especially when it comes to their food and beverage choices. One group of health experts is even taking their lessons a step further by teaching kids to explore the impact that different foods have on the environment.
“Children’s Environmental Health is a new and growing subspecialty of pediatrics,” explains Allen J. Dozor, MD, Chief of the Pediatric Pulmonology, Allergy, Immunology, and Sleep Medicine Division at Boston Children’s Health Physicians, who also serves as Director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center of the Hudson Valley.
The importance of environmental health
The food children consume is one of the most intimate ways their gastrointestinal tract interacts with the environment. Environmental exposures can occur via inhalation, absorption, or ingestion. Therefore, physicians who provide nutrition education with an environmental focus to kids and parents can help limit adverse exposures to elements that can have a big impact on children’s growth and development.
Addressing the growing focus on sustainability
“Kids are affected by what they eat and drink, and even what’s in the soil,” Dr. Dozor says. “Because they are not just little adults, their vulnerability to environmental agents is markedly different. They are closer to the ground and they breathe faster,” he points out. This causes them to inhale more environmental toxins per minute, especially those that settle to the ground. This is just one small example of a much larger picture of why children are at increased risk.
Understanding the link between food and health
By educating children about the differences between whole foods and processed foods, and teaching them about additives, pesticides, and packaging, they can become more sophisticated consumers and can educate their own families, too.
Perhaps no one knows this better than Amy Brown, MD, a pediatric pulmonologist with Boston Children’s Health Physicians, who is also the Environmental Health Center’s first scholar. In this role, she recently had a unique chance to collaborate with the Dows Lane Elementary School in the Irvington Free Union School District to pilot a face-to-face interactive program about environmentally based nutrition education.
“They asked us to help come up with creative ways to address misinformation about nutrition and help kids better understand the risks that come along with their food choices,” she recalls.
The school also wanted to provide students with information they could take home to their families, thus helping to disseminate the lessons into the community.
Safe food elementary curriculum
The resulting program consists of a five-lesson curriculum targeted to kindergarteners through third graders. Presented by Dr. Brown, along with registered nutritionists Diane Lindsay-Adler, MS, RDN, and Meg Tubman, MS, RD, each lesson is adapted for different age levels. For younger kids, the material is presented in picture format and involves coloring, while older kids get handouts to read and have more writing assignments.
“We talk about why certain foods are better quality and we talk about the impact on the environment,” Dr. Brown says. Kids also get to try healthy foods themselves.
Exploring the differences in food forms
“One of the concepts we introduce at a young age is that foods that sound the same are most certainly not always the same, and we talk about the differences that go along with different food forms,” Dr. Brown says. This conversation really provides an opportunity to talk about additives, and to teach students that when they make a healthy food choice that it has an impact that goes beyond their bodies. “Last year, students of all grades, even kindergarteners, were excited to learn about the concept of carbon foot-printing and they were shocked to learn that their own food choices actually impact their own carbon footprint,” Dr. Brown says.
Building on the framework
The results of the program have been encouraging. “We sent out a survey and found that the kids went home and talked about what they learned and some families made changes as a result,” Dr. Brown said.
“The curriculum gives us the bones of a program that we would love to adapt to share with a broader audience,” Dr. Dozor says. “This is a wonderful model since what kids learn when they are young will stick with them for life.”
Learn more about how the Pediatric Pulmonology, Allergy, Immunology, and Sleep Medicine Division at Boston Children’s Health Physicians and find out how they can help your patients by calling 844-463-2247.