The Switch From Processed to Fresh in School Lunches: Harder Than You Think
Three years ago, Sarah Wu, a speech pathologist for Chicago public schools, didn’t have time to pack her own lunch. Not thinking anything of it, she left home, drove to work, taught her students and when the lunch bell rang, she walked down the hall towards the cafeteria. As she read the menu options, Wu was not impressed. Soggy bagels, tater tots, mushy over-microwaved frozen pizzas. Feeling the gurgle in her own stomach, she was thinking more about the 90 percent of kids who qualify for free lunch and consider these options to be the best they’ll get all day.
These lunches are provided by the National School Lunch program which feeds students in more than 101,000 public and non-profit private schools and residential child care institutions across the country.
The government claims that it provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to more than 31 million children each and every school day. Are those meals truly healthful?
Wu went home angry and started a blog, Fed Up With Lunch, in which she ate in her cafeteria every day for a year and wrote about the meals. At the same time, First Lady Michelle Obama was beginning her Let’s Move campaign and chef Jamie Oliver was beginning his television show, Food Revolution, bringing national attention to the problems in our school cafeterias today.
In the U.S., 12.5 million children are obese. Could Congress be to blame since it has claimed pizza as a vegetable and have tried removing the potato from the program all together?
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) fought to keep the vegetable on the menu and won. “Here is the federal government trying to teach people to eat whole foods, to eat locally grown foods -- there are all these farm-to-school programs to teach children where food comes from -- and to try to get them to eat it in a way that is not processed heavily and [removing the potato] is contrary to all of that,” she said.
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) fought alongside Collins on the issue. “Can you imagine not having a potato in the school lunch program?" Snowe asked. "I don’t understand it.”
Andrea Northup, director and founder of D.C. Farm to School Network, a coalition of stakeholders working to incorporate more healthful, local foods into D.C. school meals, has revolutionized the food in school cafeterias across the Washington area. She says that despite the potato fiasco, there has been a huge positive shift in the cafeteria thanks to programs like her own. “We’ve gone from prepackaged airplane style meals, Frosted Flakes and Otis Spunkmeyer, to minimally processed meals prepared from whole ingredients.”
The Farm to School Network connects students with where their food comes from, provides health, food and environmental education opportunities and supports the local food economy. The network, which began four years ago in D.C. serves two-thirds of all school-aged children in the city. Each of the 63 schools -- participating and serving meals approved by the Healthy Schools Act, a local law that went into effect in 2010 which sets nutrition and serving standards for D.C. schools participating in the federal school meal program -- receives supplemental funding from the local government.
Northup does face daily challenges. One example involves getting the kids to eat these foods. “There are a lot of issues now where the kids are not familiar with a roasted sweet potato when they are used to eating french fries or sauteed broccoli when they’re used to green beans in a can," she said. "School menus now look more like a restaurant than what you particularly think school meals would be. If you looked up the menus, you’d be flabbergasted at the words you’d see like 'chipotle roasted,' 'lemon sauteed,' as you think of these words when you think of restaurant meals. It is really impressive what the institution and community support of all of us has been able to do.”
Another drawback is funding. Northup has been fortunate enough to have incredible partners, such as Sweetgreen, a salad and frozen yogurt restaurant establishment, which contributes financially as well as works with the children on salad-making classes in the schools. Northrup adds that it is up to D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to decide whether funding D.C. Farm to School and feeding the children locally and sustainably is worth the check.
“You’re getting what you pay for when you invest in healthier school meals," Northup says. "Even slightly higher costs in the short term, in my opinion, pay off in terms of higher attentiveness of the children, better outcomes for the children, higher productivity in school and in life. We are preventing these more costly diseases materializing in the future by investing now. It is something that doesn’t resonate well with someone like the chancellor who is in charge of balancing the books now, and you can’t blame her for that."
Northup says that because of the Healthy Schools Act, the law which was just recently passed by the D.C. Council, providing funding incentives and institutional support to schools that serve healthful food, Farm to School has gone from a “Huh, what’s that?” notion to a household name.
Farm to School programs are popping up all over the nation, some larger and some smaller than the program established in D.C. While many boggle with how to pay for the newer food choices, the menu seems to be pleasing. Susan Wu, the blogger who took matters into her own hands to fix the lunches her students were eating, is thrilled with the changes taking place in schools across the country and believes that the more involved communities are, the more successful the outcome will be. Wu says she can’t imagine kids going back to what they used to eat and has even made a menu of the future on her blog to show how food is evolving for student lunches, available at fedupwithlunch.com
For Northup, the real bottom-line choice is this: “Are we willing to look long-term and look strategically at food service because we see that it is very important to health and success of our children, or are we not?”