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School Design Can Influence Students' Health, Eating Habits

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Just like adding reading nooks to classrooms can encourage students to pick up a book, changes in the way schools are designed could help change students' eating habits and increase how active they are.

A new set of guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers details down to doorknobs and color schemes to influence students' eating habits.

Imagine walking through a school with a garden, places for students to eat outside, and a kitchen where they can watch cafeteria workers on the job and learn how to cook themselves. The open floor plan of the kitchen and cafeteria would allow for conversations between cooks and students, researchers said, ideally sparking chats about buying local, seasonal food, and how to cook. And students could see how school cooks keep their kitchens clean and minimize what they throw away. The lessons, they said, could include those about diet, ecology, and the local economy—especially in places with a lot of local agriculture. And indoor-outdoor spaces could be used for a variety of activities, say a small fitness class, even yoga. (Not that everyone is crazy about that idea.)

The guidelines have already been translated into reality at two schools in Buckingham County, Va., which opened this school year and are now being studied by the guideline writers. They are looking at school-level practices and curricula, food procurement, staff attitudes and what foods students buy, and what students learn about food and their attitudes toward healthy eating. On Wednesday at 1 p.m., Eastern time, you can chat with the guideline writers about their work on Twitter.

Exposing students to different types of food and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables is the thrust of a number of programs, including two U.S. Department of Agriculture initiatives. The Farm to School program connects schools and local farmers, for example. And First Lady Michelle Obama's Chefs Move to School program is designed to educate students about food.

In other places, such as New York City, innovation in school design is also encouraged to attack childhood obesity.

While finances may keep the rebuilding schools to encourage healthy eating and more physical activity out many districts' reach years, for years, Brian Wansink at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., has espoused more subtle changes to the school cafeteria to improve the food choices students make. Check out this cool interactive graphic to see what some of his ideas are—which have boosted how sales of salads and apples sold at schools all over the country.

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