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The New School Lunch

As part of a healthier school food movement, food service providers and district administrators find creative ways to provide better meals.

If the schools in your district are like most in the United States, there is a good chance that today’s lunch features pizza, hot dogs, chicken nuggets or maybe hamburgers with processed cheese. Is serving these types of foods really in the best interest of our children’s health? Common sense says no, as do the statistics, which are startling.

Fourth- and fifth-graders at Washington Elementary School in the Auburn (Wash.) School District tend an organic garden. Last year, the garden had 45 fruit trees and beds of beans, zucchini and cucumbers, which were used for the school lunch program.

“If childhood obesity continues to increase, it could cause our current generation of children to become the first generation in American history to live shorter lives than their parents,” speculates the American Heart Association’s 2005 report A Nation at Risk.

Obesity among children aged 6 to 11 has more than doubled in the past 20 years, while the rate among those aged 12 to 19 has more than tripled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Mathematically, you can reach nutrition goals with [fatty, processed foods], but it is clear to all of us that whole, fresh, natural foods are better for our bodies,” says Eric Boutin, child nutrition services director for the Auburn (Wash.) School District, whose food service operation is independently run.

This epidemic of obesity, cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes is driving school districts, national food service providers and nonprofit organizations to look outside the deep fryer to find healthy ways to feed today’s students.

“It is a challenge to change people’s eating habits. Schools need to be persistent in tackling these really tough habits that people are ingrained in. The health of our children depends on it,” explains Barb Mechura, director of food services at Hopkins (Minn.) School District, whose food service team prepares meals from scratch.

Not surprisingly, education is the critical step in fostering this change. Even vending machines in more than a dozen schools now offer fruits and vegetables due to the Healthy Vending program from Horizon Software. And food service providers such as Chartwells, Sodexo and ARAMARK are having a national impact on changing the way students eat and think about nutrition. Chartwells’ award-winning program Balanced Choices teaches students how to make sound choices for a healthy lifestyle. It provides nutrition education and a meal guidance system for students that assists them in making the most nutritious choices— such as eating fruit instead of cookies—when selecting meals, snacks and beverages at school. And Sodexo was the first food provider to sign on to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s School Beverage and Competitive Food Guidelines, which means Sodexo will only offer age-appropriate portion sizes that limit total calories and supply snacks that have limited saturated fat, sugar and sodium.

The Cool*Caf cafeteria at the Fern Hill Elementary School in the West Chester (Pa.) Area School District promotes good health. Cool*Caf is a school dining environment that incorporates wellness menus and touts healthconscious messages on walls.

Stealth Foods 101

Throughout the nation, food service providers have cut down on the amount of processed foods served to students by replacing these items with more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and lean protein sources. There is just one problem: Most students hesitate to try new things, and if it’s too healthy, it can be a turnoff. Welcome to Stealth Foods 101.

“Schools are taking foods familiar to kids and processing them in ways that are healthier than what kids would be served at your typical fast food restaurant,” explains Margo G. Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Kids are eating pizza made with whole grain crust and reduced-fat mozzarella cheese and haven’t got a clue,” says Mechura. “Utilizing stealth foods, you can find healthy options for the kids so that they can still enjoy some of their favorite foods. It is about finding the right recipes for those foods that kids like in order to keep meal participation up.” In the case of Winston-Salem (Mass.) Forsyth County Schools, administrators found that getting kids to eat healthier didn’t have to be a battle. In partnering with Chartwells, the district improved the nutritional quality of popular menu selections using the stealth foods method. The district increased student satisfaction and participation, which led to an increase in the school’s dining budget by more than 30 percent.

Students at Fern Hill Elementary School reach for more fruits and vegetables.

Students have become savvy when they eat out and have come to expect the same experience when they eat in school, officials say. To speak to this sophistication, national food service providers have begun to focus on the total dining experience by designing programs that combine menu, environment, and nutrition awareness and education. ARAMARK recently launched Cool*Caf, a new elementary school dining environment that incorporates the company’s newly designed wellness menus that exceed U.S. Department of Agriculture and state-level nutrition guidelines. Cool*Caf uses animation and student-inspired themes and messages on walls that promote good health.

“We needed to create a fun environment where elementary school students would be excited about eating a healthy lunch at school,” explains Cathy Schlosberg, ARAMARK’s vice president of marketing and strategic development. Elementary students nationwide have found that healthy eating can be fun and delicious through Sodexo’s A-to-Z Salad Bars, in which students enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables for each letter of the alphabet. And the Berkeley (Calif.) Unified School District, which prepares all of its meals from scratch, introduced a worldly flair to its school lunch program by creating an international marketplace theme. The program offers healthy foods from cultures and nations around the world.

Using Local Farms

To get students healthy and help the local economy, many districts have also begun sourcing some of their produce from local farmers—a win-win for both parties. The national Farm to School programs connect schools with local farms to improve student nutrition, provide health and nutrition education opportunities, and support local small farmers. Kids First, a nonprofit that is dedicated to improving the nutritional and physical well-being of children in Rhode Island, discovered the beauty of the Rhode Island potato. Local potatoes cost less than frozen French fries. “We found a niche product that works better for our schools, pays the farmer better, and is cheaper and healthier than its processed counterpart,” says Dorothy Brayley, Kids First’s executive director.

Schlosberg adds that some districts, like the Katonah-Lewisboro (N.Y.) School District in Westchester County, N.Y., use organic foods. But the bigger trend is in buying local produce. “We have been working around the country with our distribution networks so that we can offer local produce,” she says.

Thanks to a partnership between ARAMARK and Kids First, which holds an annual “Harvest Week” every fall for various Rhode Island districts, students eat local produce and learn which fruits and vegetables are locally grown. The farmers are also invited to speak. “The interaction between schools and farms fosters a strong sense of community, and buying local supports our local economy,” says Giovanna Venditti, director of finance of the Central Falls (R.I.) Public Schools. “Best of all, the kids get fresh, nutritious and delicious Rhode Island grown foods.”

Some school districts are getting down and dirty by tilling their own school gardens. In 2007, the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education approved encouraging schools to plant gardens to promote healthy nutrition habits among students. The LAUSD food service program, which is self-operated and serves 700,000 meals a day, tries to get most of its fresh fruits and vegetables from the Central Valley.

Back in Oregon, Auburn High School’s garden is about an acre and a half and is located between the high school and elementary school. “We are really excited about our garden this year. Last year, we planted 45 fruit trees and raised vegetable beds that consisted of beans, zucchini, and cucumbers that we used in our school lunch program,” says Boutin.

And composting programs have grown. Forestville (Calif.) Union School District’s composting and recycling program saved the district $160 a month over the last three years by reducing the number of garbage dumpsters at its schools.

The Cost Factor

Regardless if a school district chooses to prepare its meals from scratch, grow its own vegetables, or partner with a food service provider, overcoming cost is a challenge. The USDA reimburses schools $2.57 for each meal served in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which provides meals to more than 30.5 million children each school day. “Our business is in pennies. You have $2.57 to prepare a whole meal, and that is not just food costs. That is labor costs, paper supplies, uniforms for staff, gas for your trucks, and you also get charge backs from school districts for utilities, custodial, cafeteria supervision, etc.,” explains Mechura.

“We can barely afford to put an unhealthy meal in front of our children for $2.57, and then, when you are trying to add more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, it becomes very, very challenging,” adds Brayley.

But relief is coming, as President Obama announced a $1 billion-a-year increase for child nutrition, which includes the school lunch and breakfast programs. An additional $100 million in the economic stimulus package is designed to upgrade school cafeteria equipment. And later this year, Congress is expected to reauthorize the federal child nutrition programs, which could include funding for school meal reimbursements and reassessing national school nutrition standards

Brian D. Wallace is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.