Obesity is contagious. If I am obese, my friends, my friends’ friends, and my friends’ friends’ friends are more likely to be obese.

These obese social networks are growing, as evidenced by American children being three times more likely to be obese today than they were in the 1980s. How do we combat this staggering trend?

Implementing national nutrition and cooking curriculum standards in schools would be a start. This would promote healthy relationships with food among social networks, as early as pre-K when children are just beginning to experiment with new foods, and is a promising solution to the obesity epidemic.

Research shows that food preferences and eating habits are shaped early in life. Children are more willing to try and accept new foods when they see their parents, teachers, or peers eating them. Similar to the peer pressure we felt at our first high-school party — with red keg cups scattering the sticky dining room table converted to a beer pong table, and the intimidating upperclassman passing around shot glasses — by exposing children to teachers and friends enthusiastically preparing and eating healthy foods in the right quantities, more children are likely to model them. This new social network would spread health instead of obesity. Eventually, there would be less support for trips to McDonald’s and more support for snacking on hummus and celery.

Some may argue this is the intent of the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) proposed rules.  They require all schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program or other federal child nutrition programs to implement a local school wellness policy that includes goals for nutrition education among other health and wellness elements. While the rules provide examples of nutrition promotion and education activities such as meal planning, food demonstrations, and taste testing, schools are not required to include such activities in their wellness plans.

A recent systematic review in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s journal, Preventing Chronic Disease, found that parents and their children who lack cooking skills and nutrition understanding are likely to eat the majority of their food outside of the home. Clearly, that lifestyle will not help our families get healthy. As we are entirely too familiar, our food environment can be toxic and deceptive. Even when we try to make healthier choices in restaurants, like ordering salads, we often fail. To illustrate, Applebee’s pecan-crusted chicken salad is an overwhelming 1,340 calories and is packed with enough salt to last you a few days.

I witnessed this first-hand while working as a classroom assistant for Cooking Matters, a national culinary and nutrition education program, with high-school students in Berkeley, California. Most had never diced an onion or peeled a carrot. When it came time to eat the vegetarian fajitas, brown rice, and cabbage slaw they had prepared, some were still full from their Big Mac breakfast.

It appears that the federal government acknowledges that nutrition education needs to be standardized and integrated into school curriculum. In 2013, an Institute of Medicine workshop with representatives from the USDA and the US Department of Education recommended national nutritional curriculum standards for grades K-12. These standards would require skills-based instruction on food preparation, food literacy, obesity prevention, and nutrition, but also allow the states and local school districts the flexibility to tailor the standards to the students. This workshop offered immense hope. Yet, since then, no progress seems to have been made and standards still do not exist today.

Certainly, many schools will not jump at the opportunity to implement a new set of standards to teach kids how to make their own naturally flavored soda water with strawberries and fresh mint or bake kale chips. School districts are already strapped for funding and barely scraping by with the Common Core curriculum standards.  Fortunately, there are hundreds of nutrition education programs (like Cooking Matters) operated by non-profits, B Corps, departments of health, and universities that have the resources to provide nutrition expertise, materials, and teacher professional development and can – and many already do – partner with schools.

We need national nutrition and cooking curriculum standards from pre-K through high school to provide students the opportunity to learn how to cook and eat healthy with their peers. Our social networks play critical roles in our health behaviors. Let’s use them to promote healthy diets starting at a young age, when it really matters.

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Emily Lisker is a master’s student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, a daughter of UC Berkeley alums, and granddaughter of long-time Berkeley residents.
Emily Lisker is a master’s student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, a daughter of UC Berkeley alums, and granddaughter of long-time Berkeley residents.