A recent UNICEF report on the state of the world’s children finds that one in three kids under five years old is either undernourished or overweight.
According to the report, the U.S. is struggling with childhood obesity more than any other country — 42% of American kids ages five to 19 are overweight, a nearly 50% increase from 1990.
Many reasons behind the problem are complex — including cost, availability and access — but some say a glaring issue in the U.S. is a general lack of nutrition education.
One on-the-ground approach to addressing healthy eating at a young age is happening in the greater Cincinnati area. New Leaf Kitchen is a mobile community cooking nonprofit that teaches kids, regardless of income, how to cook nutritious, affordable meals.
New Leaf Kitchen’s founder, Annie Streitmarter, says their food education program — fully equipped with child-safe tools and allergy accommodations — can transform any setting into a learning space for all ages. Children as young as 18 months have participated.
“We start young,” she says. “They’re never too young to start cooking.”
New Leaf Kitchen’s mission, Streitmarter says, is to educate children on how to prepare “simple, easy, many times raw and vegan food that they can access easily and doesn’t cost a fortune.”
“Hopefully the children will then bring those ideas and passions and recipe cards home,” she says, “and then change what the parents are spending and buying from the grocery store and what we’re demanding from the vendors and food manufacturers.”
For low-income workers, time and finances can be barriers to continuous healthy cooking.
Streitmarter says the program strives to help families navigate those challenges.
New Leaf Kitchen teaches children that buying in bulk and buying dried, frozen raw forms of food is more cost-effective than purchasing processed, already-made meals, she says. Prioritizing cooking time, she says, is another way to plan a full week of healthy eating options.
For example, she says instead of sitting and watching TV for 30 minutes, the program teaches children to try allocating that time to fixing up dishes that will carry them throughout the week. She says the impact of using time wisely to cook hearty, nutritious food will pay off in the long run.
“If you don’t have the time to eat healthy now, are you going to have the time to be sick and take off work later?” she says. “The consequences far outweigh in terms of cost if you eat unhealthy versus if you eat healthily.”
Streitmarter, a vegan, says she’s been cooking with families in different capacities for years. The idea to start a class for kids — “from the root up” as she describes — came from trying to make eating healthy “more positive.”
“Instead of being judgmental or resentful or demonizing food to people and preaching, I’ve just decided to find a solution,” she says.
For one of their recipes — mac n’ squash — the class gets a hands-on experience. Kids get to scoop and feel the squash seeds, then use mashers to soften the veggie.
For a plant-based beverage, they learn how to make creamy oat milk from a blend of oats, water, raisins and a pinch of cinnamon.
One food the educators commonly incorporate is nutritional yeast. It’s an “affordable item that adds a ton of nutrients to vegetarian meals,” Streitmarter says, and has a long shelf-life.
“Their interest in these new foods and their excitement to try what they made really encourages us to keep on going,” she says.
Utilizing the entire vegetable or fruit is another technique that New Leaf Kitchen promotes. When making applesauce, Streitmarter says the kids learn how to repurpose the peels as apple chips. Then, all scraps that can’t be reused are taught how to be properly composted.
As the kids whip up their snacks, they learn how different vegetables or fruits grow, what the nutrients do for their bodies and how to source locally.
To address undernourishment and obesity on a wider scale, Streitmarter says she tends to favor a consumer-based approach, where teaching customers to buy local and demand better, chemical-free foods would in turn push grocery stores to stock those items instead of processed foods.
“We have to teach that consumer how to read labels and what these ingredients mean and what they do to our bodies and why we need to avoid them,” she says.
That philosophy is core to New Leaf Kitchen’s mission, Streitmarter says, by showing consumers the “power that food can have.”