School lunches are at the front lines of the country’s childhood obesity and nutrition crisis. First Lady Michelle Obama, star chef Jamie Oliver and the “Renegade Lunch Lady” activist Ann Cooper have helped draw the public interest to the problems in school cafeterias.
Since 2009, I have worked with The Culinary Institute of America’s Menu for Healthy Kids initiative. We have provided school districts in New York’s Hudson Valley with tools to improve the food served to students.
During my time in these schools, I’ve seen a lot of finger-pointing. Parents blame the schools for providing poor choices on the lunch line and then reward their child’s soccer victory with a trip to McDonald’s.
The fact of the matter is that we are all to blame. Children mimic what they see. We can’t control the commercials on TV or what the latest “teen idol” is doing, but we can manage what they experience here in the real world. And for a child, the real world consists primarily of two locations: school and home.
School administrators, food service directors, teachers, and parents have the greatest ability to influence how well our students eat. There must be collaboration from all if we are to see any success.
Having an administration open to healthful changes within the school or district is essential. PTAs are a great vehicle for starting the conversation between administrators and parents. Any proposals to administrators must be cost-efficient and concisely presented. Some ideas I have seen grow out of these conversations include health fairs or physical activity days. I have never met a school administrator that didn’t want what was best for their schools and children.
The administrator’s advantage
But administration doesn’t need to wait to hear from parents. Administrators looking to improve their school’s food offerings should spend time with the food service director. They are some of the most underappreciated people I have ever met. They work hard crunching numbers, coordinating services, tracking nutrients, and managing staffs—only to be blamed for all that’s wrong with America’s youth.
Food service is often the only department in a school district not funded by a school budget. They are expected to make enough money to support their own program. These departments usually do receive some federal aid, but in reality, our prison systems’ food services are better funded than schools.
Ask questions, and learn how your administration can help them. Look at their lack of equipment and finances and try to devise ways to work within those parameters. And above all, don’t be condemnatory.
Parents also must be engaged for any initiative of this kind to be successful. As I have mentioned, the PTA is a great place to start. That organization can seek out teacher partners involved in culinary and health courses, as well as physical education or human development and family studies. But parents must be the backbone for getting any of these initiatives off the ground. If they have no interest in their children’s health, then all the efforts of the schools might go for naught.
Each school we worked with through Menu for Healthy Kids had its own challenges. Many of the districts created unique initiatives based on families’ interests and resources.
One rural school district now holds a Harvest Day, where students make sculptures or characters using only vegetables. Another does a Stone Soup Night, where parents and kids sign up for different activities and then enjoy a big pot of vegetable soup together.
A city school received a federal grant to purchase fresh, local produce to use in side dishes for the lunch program. One suburban district holds a Family Fitness Night where parents and kids learn about healthy eating and fitness
Several schools ask local chefs to come in to prepare hot lunch. A chef can bring in a few specialty items, and then use ingredients found in the cafeteria to make stir-fry, build-your-own burritos, Chinese dumplings over lo mein, or even chicken parmigiana. The kids literally “eat it up,” without realizing they’ve added fresh vegetables to their meal.
Bad eating habits can’t be changed overnight. But with teamwork, we can make sure students develop healthier eating habits that will last a lifetime.
Rico Griffone is a 2005 graduate of The Culinary Institute of America and consulted for the college’s Menu for Healthy Kids research program from 2009 to 2013, a program designed to combat childhood obesity through school lunch reform.