Changing Lives with School Lunches


There have been several links floating around social media for the past couple of weeks, comparing school lunches from developed countries around the world. If you’ve missed it, one of the best links is here. While the USA lunch looks bad compared to the others (more processed food, less fresh), at least this is a fairly balanced looking meal – if the kids eat all of it. But how important are school lunches, anyway?

In the United States, an estimated 32 million students eat school lunches every day. Faced with such staggering participation, most school districts contract with food service management companies to provide them with these meals. This takes the ownership of the contents of school lunches out of the hands of education professionals, and puts it into the hands of for-profit enterprises. The USDA even encourages schools to purchase processed foods, such as canned or frozen prepared items, as a way to save both money and time. Despite a push towards healthier meals under the Obama administration, the USDA’s new guidelines continue to emphasize the use of canned and frozen fruits, vegetables, and even meats (although many of them do have “reduced sodium”). In fact, most school cafeteria workers spend the majority of their time opening boxes or bags and heating up prepared items, rather than actually doing food preparation and cooking. Some schools don’t even have food prep equipment in their kitchens anymore!

Cook for America (CFA) is hoping to change this dynamic. They offer training to schools to transform school lunches into healthier, made-from-scratch offerings that students will actually eat. CFA provides training to local professional chefs (Culinary Coaches) and food service workers through programs such as their Culinary Boot Camp. The Culinary Coaches form strong relationships with the food service workers, or “Lunch Teachers,” and they are able to provide ongoing support. The Lunch Teachers often become leaders of school lunch reform in their districts, empowered to change the menus and teach thousands of children about the pleasures of fresh food. Many districts cite lack of funds as the reason why lunch reform cannot happen: therefore, CFA also offers a workshop called “Lunch Money” for food service directors, district administrators and school board members, designed to help school districts find sources of waste and redistribute the funds they already have so that they can provide healthier meals without increasing their spending.

Founded by two chefs, Kate Adamick and Andrea Martin, Cook for America has worked with schools in over 85 school districts, including New York, Ohio, and California, since its inception in 2006. One school district in Colorado went from using 95% processed foods to cooking 99% of their meals from scratch (they still buy ketchup!); in fact, their Nutrition Services Director found that she could save $4,000 per year simply by buying fresh beans from a local farm rather than canned beans. And, she stated, “the taste is amazingly different.” The new menus not only have more nutritional value; they are also quite popular with the kids. (As a former public school teacher who often bought school lunch due to the convenience factor, I would imagine that the faculty members love it, too!).

Eating better school lunches can have a lasting positive impact on our children. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that the number of cases of diabetes and prediabetes has increased among Americans of all ages and ethnicities, but especially in young people. Although researchers do not understand the causes of this dramatic increase, they do know that obesity is a known risk factor for type 2 diabetes. The processed foods we eat and our more sedentary lifestyles are likely contributing to higher levels of obesity. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announced this month that it is committing an additional $500 million over the next ten years to programs designed to stop childhood obesity; this is in addition to the $500 million they already put towards that cause in 2007. Since the beginning of this initiative, over 27,000 schools nationwide have joined their Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program. (Interestingly, the school nutrition guidelines are focused as much on snacks as on lunch, and they don’t address processed foods at all.)

In many other countries, children eat what their parents eat; in this country, almost every restaurant has a “Kids’ Menu.” Chef Andrea Martin, co-founder of CFA, would like to see Kids’ Menus eliminated: “We need to relate to our children around food in a way that promotes learning, growth, and social opportunity.” Most parents have probably heard the research that children need to be introduced to a new food up to a dozen times before they accept it; why, then, do we keep feeding them chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and pizza? Martin believes that the adults are the ones who need to change our attitudes: “The change in the way kids are fed in this country is one of the most important things we can do. The biggest challenge is for people to make this a focus.” Thanks to CFA’s program, we CAN meet this challenge – we just need to commit to change.

This post was also published at GoLocalProv.

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