School food is a heated topic for sure. My huge thanks go to Jenna for offering to write a guest post on her recent experiences with this very important issue. She’s making a difference in her school, and I hope we’ll all be motivated to do the same! Stay tuned and subscribe to the blog if you don’t already, because soon (as soon as I get it edited) I’ll be sharing a powerful interview I did on this very subject…
Here’s Jenna from FoodWithKidAppeal.blogspot.com:
I was forced to deal with school food a year ago when my oldest started public school in Kindergarten. Initially I solved the “school food sucks” problem just by sending my son to school with real food in his lunch box. Then came my visits to him in the cafeteria, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, and eventually, his request to eat school food. Most of his peers bought lunch. He wanted to buy lunch so he could sit with the lunch line kids.
I would go to school to eat with my son and come home in tears.
The kindergarteners participating in school lunch barely ate anything. The majority guzzled chocolate milk, ate anything that came in a wrapper (pretzels, animal crackers), poked at the fruit on their tray and nibbled at the entrée item. Almost none of the kindergarteners were taking the fresh vegetables offered on the line and I watched dozens of whole apples go into the garbage can with nary a bite taken from them. I wondered what the kids were like in the classroom. With only sugared up low fat milk and processed grain snack to nourish (sabotage) their brain, how much learning was going on? The thought of 400 undernourished kids in the same building, well, it made me cry.
My heart was so heavy, I was compelled to act.
I decided I wanted to help the students at Sherwood learn how to eat the real food they had access to, but were not taking or worse, throwing away uneaten. I’m not saying produce is the holy grail of nutrition, but it is some of the least processed food available to kids in the current school lunch program. Also, produce contains antioxidants that combat inflammation. Anyone routinely eating processed food is going to be suffering from inflammation of __________ (fill in the blank). I’m not foolish. Eating a few veggies won’t heal the Standard American Diet. But it’s what I have to work with. And it’s a step in the right direction.
What I’d learned from countless hours of research and networking with other school food revolutionaries was that initiatives like changing menu items (recipes), bringing salad bars in, getting rid of chocolate milk, farm to school programs, school garden programs, sourcing and cooking more food from scratch, was that these programs take time to push through to action. They require additional budgeting than what is already allocated for school food and often the changes never occur or are reversed after parents complain (chocolate milk). (Kelly here: I’m picking my jaw up off the floor – I had to verify it with Jenna – parents really do complain when there’s no chocolate milk! Only in America… This will be the topic for another post soon, as Jenna has more to share on this.)
The Now Solution – Eat to Learn
I wanted a program I could do now; a program that I didn’t need school board directors to approve of, one that I could pull off by collaborating with the administration of our local campus. I wanted to start with something that wasn’t going to ruffle feathers of parents or district nutritionists. I knew if I had to ask permission from anyone outside our campus the brakes would be applied and precious time would be lost. Time lost when kids could be learning how to make better food choices, but weren’t because school board decision makers were pointing at increased costs and shaking their heads.
At the end of last spring I learned about a grant program through National Parent Teacher Association. I decided to roll the two initiatives together. Instead of trying to change what’s available to kids, I intend to change the way kids view food and increase the odds they’d eat what decent food was available to them.
I took the concept I’ve used in my classes for years, making food relevant to kids, and applied it to the existing school food menu.
I believe if you connect food in a meaningful way to a child’s life (their activities), they want to eat it. I made a list of the realish foods on the menu, and planned to make fun food factoid flyers for each food to go home with kids. I pitched this to our PTA, principal, and Child Nutritional Services, and got the green light to proceed. Instead of delivering the content on the flyers to kids at lunch like I proposed, our principal wanted to deliver the content during morning announcements.
To grow the initiative for the grant, we added several events and came up with a catchy title, Eat to Learn.
Events include a Parent Healthy Lunch Demonstration, a campus wide Taste-Off competition, Turkey Trot in addition to a few literacy (journaling), science (produce research project) and math (graphing taste-off results) curriculum projects. The kids will also conduct an evaluation of their own lunch line choices (or lunch box) at the beginning and end of the program.
For the morning announcements, I dig up research studies that link the foods on the list to improved memory, learning and overall brain function. Then I write some grade school age appropriate factoids about the foods. The program focuses on one food each week, and food announcements are read daily. At this age kids are still excited to learn. When kids connect produce with bigger, better, smarter thinking brains they will be much more likely to eat produce when it’s available. Check out the spinach and apple morning announcements.
Cost may be an issue for us if we don’t receive the grant. If that happens we’ll be looking for other ways to fund the Taste-Off competition. I’m having a hard time getting my hands on the data from Child Nutritional Services that we need to show what our current fruit/vegetable participation is. If we get the grant, we’ll need to measure effectiveness of the program. Before and after program participation data would be one measure.
I expect there to be far more roadblocks in the concurrent initiative to improve the school food menu. Our Healthy Lifestyles committee has our next meeting with Child Nutritional Services in November to begin that process. See this article for the back-story on our first meeting. This post is a review of what’s happened since that meeting and includes a list of the changes we’d like to see to the menu.
What’s available to kids at school through the school lunch program is not what’s coming from the farm. There are no farm eggs, grass fed beef or locally and sustainably grown produce on the lunch line. What’s available to them is a processed CAFO meat patty with any number of factory made additives and baby carrots. When you compare that to a baked bone-in chicken quarter, the chicken is better. The chicken is still not pastured animal protein, but at least it isn’t cut from the bone and processed to death with scary chemicals added. Sadly, kids don’t, and may never, have access to optimal food at school. But of what is currently available there are some choices that are better than others.
I look at school food like a continuum. I don’t think it’s possible to get school food to be optimally nourishing. But if we can move the indicator from 100% crap towards better choices, that’s progress. Is it a compromise for me? Yes, huge. I’m torn, because the recommendation I make to a kid whose choice is what is in the cafeteria is not how I feed my family at home.
Addressing the problem with solutions that are huge compromises to my own food standards is better than throwing up my hands and doing nothing. I believe kids need advocates for better food. If we can’t make optimal food available to them because of all the misinformation in the medical community, the lack of funding for wholesome ingredients, the lack of kitchen equipment to cook on campus, the lack of staff to prepare food from scratch vs. heat to serve items, and a long list of other obstacles, then I will focus on what I can do NOW. Right now, this week, I can share some facts about produce and the benefits to learning with kids and get them to take more fruit and veggies when they’re offered. If I can get kids to choose plain cheerios over cinnamon toast crunch, at least I’ve got the added sugars out of their breakfast. Are cheerios as good as soaked oatmeal, or a farm egg and sourdough toast with grass-fed butter? No where close.
The other upside is this program teaches children be mindful of the food they consume. It teaches them that food has an impact on their body. When they are older, and making decisions about what to buy and eat, they will be able to think critically about food and will be more likely to continue to move closer to ‘optimal’ food on the continuum.
That’s how I sleep at night even though I’m pushing factory chicken and chlorine soaked baby carrots.
Jenna is a recovering picky eater who believes all kids can learn to eat real food, and enjoy it. She is a School Food Revolutionist, swimming upstream without a map trying to get better food to school kids. She blogs about finding ways to make food relevant to kids and food revolution adventures at Food with Kid Appeal.