Interview with Pam Koch, Executive Director at the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy

by Alexina Cather, MPH

NYC Food Policy Center (FPC): What triggered you to become a dietitian, focus your life around food, and eventually head up the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education and Policy and teach nutrition at Columbia?

Pam Koch (PK): As a child, I loved cooking and biology was my favorite subject in high school. This made the choice to become a dietitian easy. While doing my undergraduate and master degrees at Rutgers, I was peer nutrition educator and loved talking to people about food. When I decided to pursue a doctoral degree, I chose Nutrition Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. After finishing my EdD, I stayed at Teachers College to work on a grant with my advisor, Dr. Isobel Contento. Many grants and projects later, I am honored to be the Executive Director of the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy.

FPC: Why is it important is it to have nutrition education implemented as a vital part of curriculum in all schools?

PK: Today’s children are tomorrow’s adults. They are inheriting climate change, high rates of chronic disease, and a society where communication is more often through screens than face-to-face. Gardening, cooking and eating whole, plant-based food, as well as learning reasons to eat fewer highly processed foods, connects students to themselves, each other, and the planet. They develop healthier eating behaviors while becoming interested in food system change. Everyone eats every day. We need to understand how to produce food to promote health, social justice, and ecological sustainability. Clearly, nutrition education is a vital part of what we need in the curriculum in all schools.

FPC: Your research explores the connections between a just, sustainable food system and healthy eating. How do you use your research to develop curricula for schoolteachers and form recommendations for policy makers?

PK: As a nutrition education researcher I investigate “what works” to change eating behaviors. I am lucky to work with Dr. Contento who — literally — wrote the nutrition education textbook and created a three-part nutrition education framework. Part one is motivational messages and activities. For example, learning that farmers markets support local farmers, reduce carbon use, and have fresh, seasonal food can be motivating. Part two is learning practical knowledge and skills, such a shopping and cooking tips. Part three is creating supports: navigating the environment to seek out healthy, just, and sustainable options, enhancing social support networks, and learning how to be an advocate for positive change.

I use this nutrition education framework to create curricula for schoolteachers. I use research evidence that nutrition education effectively changes behaviors when making recommendations to policy makers to increase funding, programs and policies for nutrition education.

Finally, I strongly believe that because people are, unfortunately, accustomed to a food supply laden with highly processed and unhealthy foods, and scant in fresh, healthy, and local foods, we need nutrition education alongside all programs that increase food access.

FPC: What has your research shown regarding how nutrition education, especially at an early age, influences eating behaviors and learning?

PK: We have been working on an evaluation with FoodCorps. We conducted a cross sectional study with 20 schools from across the country. These schools had a wide range of programming in the FoodCorps three areas of service: Hands-on Learning —which includes nutrition education classes and school garden, Healthy School Meals, and a Schoolwide Culture of Health. In this study, all 20 schools were part of the National School Lunch Program, with its high nutritional standards. Students had, on average, just about a cup of fruits and vegetables on their tray.

We found a high positive correlation between the level of Hands-on Learning and fruits and vegetables consumption at school lunch. More specifically, students who got motivational messages, knowledge, and skills — basically why and how to eat more fruits and vegetables — ate more. Students with the most programming ate three times more fruits and vegetables than students with the least programming. These results warrant a larger, controlled, pre-post outcome trial, that investigates how increases in programming change fruits and vegetables consumption at school lunch.

FPC: You recently wrote a chapter on school curriculum in the new book, Learning, Food, and Sustainability, which explores how nutrition education and a healthy school environment, especially at an early age, influences eating behaviors and learning. Can you talk a little more about this connection?

PK: In the chapter I review appropriate the topics and approaches for nutrition education from pre-school to high school. For preschool and early elementary grade, provide plenty of experiences growing, cooking, and eating whole, plant-based foods. Experiential learning is critical for younger students. With upper elementary and middle school students, experiential learning remains important. They are also developmentally ready for analytical learning, such as debating whether or not to drink sweetened beverages and learning how much sugar they contain. With high school students, food justice, policy, and equity can be layered on, as these topics get adolescents personally invested in food and changing the food system.

FPC: What are some of the findings of your evaluation and policy work regarding healthy school environments and education?  Can you talk about the extensive duplication in nutrition education programing in NYC?

PK: One of our doctoral graduates, Kathleen Porter, investigated nutrition education programs in New York City elementary schools in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. She collected data during the 2011–12 school year. We found only 39% of schools had any of the 20 programs included in the study.

With funding from New York Health Foundation, we are conducting a follow-up that includes all programs, all borough, and all grades. We are surveying over 60 organizations running over 90 programs. As you said, there are a lot of programs, and many are similar. But, New York City is big. We need more nutrition education, whether it is government funded, non-profits, or for-profits, to reach everyone. We also need coordination to assure all communities get nutrition education and that the programs are using the nutrition education framework presented above. At the same time, I believe it is important to celebrate the unique features of the many varied nutrition education programs we have in New York City.

FPC: You collaborate with a number of food and nutrition education groups throughout New York City to improve access to healthy, sustainable food? How can the NYC food community best use its assets to reach the greatest number of individuals in need?

I am reading Beyond the Kale, by Kristin Reynolds and Nevin Cohen. I highly recommend this book. We can celebrate and promote the role of urban agriculture to dismantle oppression and advance social justice. These programs do much more than grow food. They spread the food movement, build excitement, and change how people eat.

Additionally, we are studying publically funding nutrition education programs in New York City as well as New York State. We hope understanding the range, scope, and reach of these programs will help us more effectively advocate to policy makers to increase funding and support for nutrition education.

FPC: What do you believe to be the greatest food policy challenges for NYC? And the greatest opportunities?

PK: The biggest challenge is that we have a lot of mouths to feed. I think the greatest opportunity come from highlighting and celebrating the amazing food movement work, especially in communities of color, happening each and every day across New York City.

FPC: What do you see as sources for positive change in our food system?

PK: I was very moved by Jonathan Latham’s piece, Why the Food Movement is Unstoppable. One idea in this article is that big food companies are becoming increasingly paranoid because, “food movements are rapidly growing social and political phenomena almost all over the world.” Latham argues what makes the food movement succeed is being leaderless, grassroots, and low budget. While the food movement has thought leaders, no one gives orders or sets goals. Being grassroots and low budget make the movement inclusive and builds momentum. Our power is in our numbers. This makes me hopeful, despite the very real political challenges we face.

FPC: What is one problem in our food system that you would like to see solved within this generation?

PK: Poverty. If we can eliminate poverty, we will be able to solve the underlying issues of inequity in access and ability to afford healthy food. I am increasingly interested in universal basic income and the role this might play in ending poverty and improving our food system.


Grew up in: Rockaway, NJ

Background and Education: Majored in nutrition and never looked back

One word you would use to describe our food system: Complicated

Food policy hero: Joan Gussow

Your breakfast this morning: Local granola and yogurt

What’s in your refrigerator and pantry right now? Beets

Your last meal would be? Really good bread with melted cheese

Favorite food: New York Apples

Your worst summer job? Waitress at Friendly’s, although kind of sweet being covered in ice cream

Social media must follow/Food policy website(s) you read: AGree newsfeed, Independent Science News, especially Jonathan Latham


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