Local Roads Lead to Healthier Public School Lunches

Public school cafeterias have long been known as a place of food options with little to no nutritional value. But the menu is changing. (istock)

Public school cafeterias have long been known as a place of food options with little to no nutritional value. But the menu is changing. (istock)

By LEIGH VINCOLA/ecoRI News contributor

As a nation we’re making slow progress reversing the nutritional damage done by industrialized food during the past five decades. It’s not always easy to see the progress when rates of childhood obesity and heart disease continue to rise, Monsanto still dominates agriculture, and equal access to fresh food remains a challenge.

But little by little, the collective work being done by many is slowly returning us to a taste preference for fresh over processed foods. It’s hard work, but there is no better place to foster this shift than with children in the place they eat at least one meal a day: the school cafeteria.

The school cafeteria has long been known as a place of food options with little to no nutritional value. Schools, parents and nutrition advocates are now fighting hard to change this and, because of their work, we’ve seen progress. Rhode Island was at the forefront of this reform, when, in 2005, the Rhode Island School Wellness Committee law was passed. It requires that all districts establish a wellness committee consisting of food-service operators, parents, teachers, nurses, students and principals to address health and wellness.

By 2008, these committees helped Rhode Island pass the Healthy Snack and Beverage law that set new nutritional guidelines for not only reimbursable school meals, but also all snacks and a la carte items available in public elementary, middle and high schools.

Three years later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture followed suit, setting the same guidelines nationwide with the Healthy Hungry-Free Kids Act. The bill, which was passed unanimously, set guidelines to ensure that students are offered daily fruits and vegetables, fat-free or low-fat milk only, more whole grain-rich foods, and meals that are limited in calories, saturated fat, trans fats, sodium and portion size.

Changing the menu
Now that stricter standards are in place there is still plenty of work to be done to turn these guidelines into healthy meals for kids. A local leader in this mission is the Rhode Island Healthy Schools Coalition, which is made up of 70 community organizations that determine schools’ wellness goals.

Karin Wetherill is the organization’s wellness coordinator and offers guidance to each district committee as it navigates the many paths toward student wellness.

“We have done a lot of work to get where we are with cafeteria food,” she said. “But it takes a lot more than standards to provide appealing, culturally appropriate meals that kids will actually eat.”

That is the challenge facing those trying to reform school menus.

The first step, Wetherill said, is looking at the whole school environment and putting ourselves in the shoes of the students. Many young people today have developed a taste for sugar and white flour — this is what they know and like.

With roughly 30 minutes to relax, eat something and socialize, school cafeterias and food-service workers must make eating healthy an appealing and quick decision. Wetherill is working with food-service providers to get creative with marketing and labeling. Simple strategies such as sampling tables and short food videos can help kids expand their palates. The younger the better, she said.

Farm Fresh Rhode Island has also taken a leadership role with its Farm to School program. Much of the work the nonprofit does includes educating students and school officials on nutrition and gardening, assisting school districts and food service to develop purchasing relationships with local farmers, and providing technical assistance to cafeteria chefs.

Farm Fresh has helped Rhode Island public schools bring in locally grown produce, milk and eggs to their cafeterias — a trend that is increasing.

Pezza Farm, Confreda Farm, Four Town Farm and Schartner Farm are among the many local farms that participate. Sodexo, the food-service provider that carries the contract for all Providence public schools, strives to use 20 percent local products. Aramark, which covers 20 other school districts in the state, is committed to improving food choices for students.

According to Kim Clark, Farm Fresh’s farm to cafeteria coordinator, one of the more impactful ways to make change within the school is to listen to what the students have to say about what their eating and the additions and changes that they care about.

“Our programs empower youth to think critically about the food they eat,” Clark said. “When students understand the impact of their food choices, they can advocate for the best food for themselves.”

Survey says more mango
A recent program run at the Spaziano School in Providence by the University of Rhode Island’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education surveyed students about their favorite fruits and vegetables and had them write a letter about their findings to Sodexo, their food-service provider.

In a largely Hispanic neighborhood, the URI program found that the students’ preferred fruit was mango, which wasn’t served at the school. Sodexo took the recommendation and made a commitment to put mangoes on the menu. That is one example of how district wellness committees are working to make culinary changes.

With the short New England growing season aligning with summer vacation, it’s not always easy to provide local products that keep kids excited. Even the most health conscious adult can tire of eating root vegetables. But for nearly a decade, since the regulations changed, Aramark has been working to establish long-term relationships with local vendors to offer healthier choices.

The company has a new breakfast bar made in Pawtucket by Shri Yoga studio, call the Shri Bar, and it is now working with Acopia Harvest, which grows hydroponic greens in Central Falls year-round. Aramark also works with FarmLogix to source foods within 200 miles.

“We’ve done a good job changing habits,” said John McGrath, general manager for Aramark School Food Services. “High-school students are especially receptive to what we’re offering and that’s because we’ve worked at changing their habits since elementary school.”

Community partners
For many children, school food is an issue of hunger and poverty as much as local and healthier. School lunch is often the only true meal a student will receive in a day, making it more important to be packed with nutrition.

Free and reduced pay lunch options are available for every U.S. child that needs it. In Rhode Island, 69 percent of the public school students in the state receive a free or reduced meal. Most free meals are served in the poor, urban districts and must meet strict nutrition guidelines. Breakfast is now being served in the highest poverty public schools.

One of the unseen challenges of the reimbursement program is that it’s the large, urban schools that receive most of the government money. In smaller suburban districts there is more household money for kids to pay full price for lunch and other snacks. With more options, these students don’t always make the best choices, making it harder to change eating patterns in suburban schools.

Additionally challenging is that school cafeteria kitchens aren’t set up for scratch cooking; food-service workers are used to pulling meals out of a box. These kitchens don’t have the equipment to actually prepare food and the staff typically isn’t properly trained with basic culinary skills. The Farm to School program has helped by providing some of the necessary technical training.

The Rhode Island Healthy Schools Coalition, Farm to School program and the URI SNAP-Ed all working together for the same goal: healthy and accessible school food.

“Our work in the schools complements each other and we often collaborate and leverage grant funds,” Wetherill said. “We’re lucky that this kind of collaboration exists ... and we’re all working hard to further engage more people in the conversation.”