So Long, Sloppy Joe: What's Cooking At School
Thirteen years ago on Saturday Night Live, Chris Farley donned a grotesque apron-and-hairnet getup and pranced around on stage -- in the way that only Chris Farley could -- while Adam Sandler sang what would become a crowd favorite: "Lunchlady Land." "Served some reheated Salisbury steak, with a little slice of love. Got no clue what the chicken pot pie is made of," went the tune. The absurdity of the sketch drove home the point: school lunch is gross.
This fall, that stereotype may get squashed. For the first time in 15 years, school lunches must meet new federal nutrition standards that limit calories and sodium and mandate more servings of fruit and vegetables. Why now? Childhood obesity levels have reached epic proportions. One-third of American children are overweight or obese, putting them at risk for diseases usually reserved for adulthood, such as type 2 diabetes. Schools, meanwhile, feed a lot of kids. Some 32 million partake in the National School Lunch Program, a subsidized service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Consider that kids get up to half of their calories in school, and many kids look to school for the bulk of their food supply. One in every five American kids struggles with hunger, according to Share Our Strength, a nonprofit focused on ending child hunger. Poor nutrition can not only lead to obesity -- through sporadic intake of processed foods -- it also begets poor school performance and behavior. What's more, at least one-quarter of 17- to 24-year-olds are too fat to enlist in the military, says the U.S. Department of Defense.
So call the new nutrition standards what they are: a massive intervention. Legislating healthier school meals represents the capstone of a burgeoning movement taking place in communities across the country and by its leadership. With her "Let's Move!" initiative, launched in February, 2010, Michelle Obama has put childhood obesity on the national agenda, enlisting schools, places of worships, and healthcare professionals, for example, in the campaign to get kids to eat well and exercise.
More than 4,000 schools have gotten a jumpstart on the new guidelines, earning recognition from the USDA's HealthierUS SchoolChallenge, which rewards schools for advancing nutrition and physical activity through Let's Move!. "Let's Move is a flowering of a movement that had begun at least a decade before," says Zenobia Barlow, executive director of Ecoliteracy, a Berkeley, Calif.-based group that helps schools educate kids about nutrition and improve their quality of food.
Several years ago, Ecoliteracy partnered with the Chez Panisse Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the well-known, eco-friendly restaurant of the same name, and the Berkeley Unified School District to provide schools with healthier food and, in some cases, cooking and gardening classes. A study that followed 238 kids from that district as they graduated from fourth and fifth grades onto middle school found that the more extensive the curricula, the better the students' attitudes and behaviors around eating healthfully.
This is just one example of the many experiments and surveys taking place throughout American school districts, all of which have lessons to share in the effort to revamp school nutrition.
In California's El Monte School District, which has won 14 silver awards from the HealthierUS School Challenge, nutrition is practically play. Kids Cooking Camp, Veggie Fear Factor, and Healthy Grocery Store Scavenger Hunt are among the activities that educate kids in nutrition. "I have learned to always involve the students in the decision-making process," says Robert Lewis, the district's nutrition director. Lewis offers students taste-tests before rolling out new foods and he takes students to commercial food shows to sample from vendors he's approved. "Students are our loyal customers and should be treated as such," especially when working to fulfill the new requirements, he says. "Start with the students and you can't go wrong."
In Cincinnati, public schools aim to serve "nutritious, low-cost, delicious meals, so that students don't feel they have to eat school lunch, but that they want to eat school lunch," says Jessica Shelly, food services director for Cincinnati Public Schools, which adopted the new guidelines last year, but switched to serving fresh produce, skim milk, and whole grains five years ago. "For many years now, you would not find any fryers, trans fat, and high-fructose corn syrup in our lunchrooms -- instead you would find salad bars, fresh fruit options, and vegetarian alternative entrées. We may still have pizza on our menu, but it has a whole-grain crust, low-fat cheese, and reduced-sodium sauce," she says. More participation in the school lunch program has meant financial savings for the school district. More importantly, evidence suggests student health is improving. Cincinnati Children's Hospital tracked students from kindergarten to third grade between 2007 and 2011 and found that more than half of the children who were obese or overweight in kindergarten had achieved a normal weight by third grade.
Putting salad bars in every school, working with resources provided by the USDA and the School Nutrition Association, and educating students and parents about the nutritional upgrades helped to encourage the adoption of new foods, Shelly says. She also attributes success to making gradual changes, like offering kids blends of white and brown rice before moving entirely to whole grains. Older students also appreciated their providing plenty of healthy meal choices in various locations, like reimbursable vending machines stationed outside the cafeteria, she says. "Children want to and will eat the healthier options when offered. I'm in the business of feeding kids, not garbage cans, so I was initially concerned about food waste from the additional offerings of fruit and vegetables each day. What I have found instead are kids who are excited to take the kiwi-orange cup and try the cherry tomatoes from the salad bar ... what I'm not finding is extra food dumped into the garbage can."
The new nutrition guidelines, announced by the First Lady and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack earlier this year, were based on recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, a nonpartisan advisory group, and established by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. That bill, for which Michelle Obama campaigned, updated current child nutrition programs -- reimbursing schools for meeting the new standards, aiding in the creation of school gardens, and boosting access to local produce and drinking water in schools, for example.
The new dietary standards "will bring more fruits and vegetables and whole grains to the cafeterias, but perhaps as importantly, they will provide an opportunity for school nutrition directors to look at their menus overall and really take a step back and think about how they can make improvements," says Ginny Ehrlich, CEO of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which works to curb childhood obesity. Ehrlich predicts the new standards will spark the kind of thinking that took place several years ago, when Congress ruled that school districts must enact local school wellness policies by 2006. "That meant that almost every school district across the country in 2005 to 2006 was having a conversation about wellness," she says.
Ehrlich's group, which is based in Portland, Ore., works with more than 14,000 U.S. schools, focusing its free training and support on poverty-stricken areas, where kids are most prone to obesity due to lack of access to nutritious foods. Current school trends, she says, include "speed-scratch cooking," mixing prepared food with homemade goods (think Sandra Lee's "Semi-Homemade Cooking" on the Food Network). Taste-testing, too, has proven popular as a kind of insurance policy for expanding variety in schools. "If you haven't seen something before, and you're 8, you're probably not going to eat a whole plate of it," Ehrlich says. Sampling prospective menu items "increases their palette, which increases what food service directors can serve, because kids will eat it."
The Alliance for a Healthier Generation has also enlisted celebrity chefs to create enticing kids' meals such as Rachael Ray's "Cheesy Mac and Trees," which boasts broccoli, to serve at schools. Ray, in fact, helped launch Michelle Obama's "Chefs Move to Schools" program, which connects chefs with schools and represents one of many elements of "Let's Move!"
As school districts swap advice on how to successfully meet the new standards, one administrator shares this tip: "You just need to keep positive that we are doing something that will help our students" for life, says Annette Derouin, director of food and nutrition services for Willmar Independent School District in Willmar, Minn. "We all should be eating more fruits and vegetables and lowering our sodium levels," says Derouin, who developed 35 breakfast and lunch menus for the four districts she supervises and has trained nearly 200 of her colleagues on updating school meals. "Why shouldn't we help educate our students to get there too?"
And while schools can create real opportunities to better nourish kids, it's only part of the solution, says Janey Thornton, USDA deputy under secretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services. What happens at home and beyond is another story. "We're not the sole answer all by ourselves, so we need to think about our cafeterias as a very important learning lab."
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