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School Food Revolution
School Food Revolution
The future will not be microwaved—at least not in our public schools. Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released the first major reconfiguration of nutritional guidelines in 15 years. Those guidelines, which go into effect this year, set standards schools must meet in order to get federal meal reimbursements. The catalyst for the guidelines was a simple but staggering statistic: one third of U.S. kids are obese or overweight. Coupled with the fact that kids consume about 30 percent to 50 percent of their daily calories while at school, the school lunch paradigm of cheap processed food—abundant in fat, sodium and sugar and desperately lacking in nutrition—was ripe for change.
What's new on the menu? More fruits, vegetables and whole grains and less sugar, trans fat and sodium. Not only will we see an improvement in nutritional density, says Theresa Hafner, executive director of the food services department for Denver Public Schools, “but the smells are back.” The smells of real food cooking (fresh-baked bread, anyone?) as opposed to the odorlessness of microwaved food, waft through the school, she says, creating a compelling visceral connection to what winds up on kids’ plates.
Denver presides on the cutting edge of bringing back scratch cooking to the school system. As Hafner explains it, before scratch cooking came back into vogue, very few people were needed in the school kitchens, where the “cooking” process mainly consisted of opening boxes of processed food to be microwaved. But when the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was passed, Leo Lesh, executive director of Denver Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services, began his forward-thinking initiative to radically change the quality of what kids were eating for lunch. Nationwide, there was a lot that needed to change, from subpar meat and poultry to a lack of fresh vegetables and fruits. According to a study conducted by the Institute of Medicine in 2009, children consumed only about 40 percent of their recommended vegetable intake—even with French fries and potato chips included in the total.
But as awareness of the importance of school lunches becomes more acute, many impressive changes are underfoot. School gardens proliferate, a resurgence in scratch cooking is spreading across the country and salad bars are making a comeback. School vending machines are being reassessed, free drinking water is once again plentiful, and flavored milk is being banned from many schools.
Though this all may seem like a utopian dream come true, the kids themselves need a fair amount of coaxing to try new foods. “Kids eat with their eyes first,” says Hafner. One of the biggest challenges is making the food look attractive, she says. For example, the salad bar has radish and tomato flowers, as well as produce that the children helped tend in the school garden. To convince kids that the healthier food is also deliciously palatable, taste testing and surveys help get them on board with the changes. “They need to try something numerous times before they like it,” Hafner says.
Becoming an advocate
No matter where you live, there are many things you can do to rally for change in your cafeteria. Here are a few ideas, many of which stem from Amy Kalafa's Lunch Wars (Tarcher, 2011), to get you started on becoming an effective school food advocate.
Occupy your child's cafeteria. First of all, you need to become familiar with what you are fighting against—and for. Before you do anything, go to your child's cafeteria. Take a few other interested parents with you to make it less awkward, if necessary, and see what the kids have on their plates. If you don't like it, that's the place to begin. Kids will eat roughly 4,000 school lunches between kindergarten and 12th grade, and what they eat there has an enormous impact on their health.
Discover your school's wellness policy. The Child Nutrition Act and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 made it mandatory for all U.S. schools to have a wellness policy that addresses healthy eating and physical activity. The policy must include nutrition guidelines for all foods available on school grounds. Additionally, the committee that writes the policy has to include parents. Knowing your school's policy makes you a well-informed advocate with something concrete to build on.
Get support. If your school has a wellness committee, that's a great place to begin. If not, team up with other parents and health advocates and form your own coalition.
Food for thought. Educating children about making smart food choices is crucial to the long-term benefit of any lunch program. Advocate for making nutrition a part of the school's curriculum. Integrate what kids are learning in the classroom with what they are learning in the cafeteria, and you have an empowered consumer who can tell the difference between a healthy and unhealthy food, even if they don't always act on that knowledge.
Teach nutrition from the ground up. The best way to reinforce the changes in the cafeteria is by starting a school garden, says Hafner. Not only are children more inclined to eat the foods they grow, but schools with gardens have much lower rates of vandalism, Hafner notes.
Eat your words. Model the change you want to see in your kids' diets; don't just talk about it. Practice what you preach at home by providing healthy meals for your family. For school birthday parties and sports events, bring on the wholesome treats that nourish as well as delight.
Start small. If you are meeting some resistance to change, take baby steps, suggests Hafner. Try introducing fresh vegetables or fruits once a week, and see if the response is positive. You can also start a pilot table in your cafeteria for athletes, loaded with good sources of protein and fresh vegetables, and see if interest grows.
Elizabeth is an award-winning journalist who has written about everything from agave syrup to placebos to zero waste. She writes for the magazines Natural Health, Backpacker and FitPregnancy, among others, as well as a handful of websites, including Gaiam and Natural Medicine Journal. She also has coauthored a 52-card oracle deck with guidebook called The Mother’s Wisdom Deck (Sterling Publishers).
September 13th, 2012