School Lunch Reform Done Right

Young people are more likely to embrace healthier eating habits if they are exposed from seed to plate and are involved in the process
Young people are more likely to embrace healthier eating habits if they are exposed from seed to plate and are involved in the process

Well, it took me a bit longer to post my follow up on the new USDA Dietary Guidelines and their relationship with school food. But it was for good reason – I have been working on some exciting new projects that I can’t wait to share with you! For now though, I will focus on the topic – school foods… School lunch has sparked many debates over the past five years since Michelle Obama made it her mission to tackle the childhood obesity epidemic by developing stricter school lunch guidelines. While those in healthcare cheered her on, there was an enormous amount of backlash from communities -students, parents, and school food service directors. Instead of using the power of food to bring communities together, this new policy caused deep divides with food service directors absorbing the brunt of the anger from all sides. This was a prime example of inadequate top down policy work. There is so much work that needs to happen in addition to policy implementation, telling schools what they can and can not serve does nothing to change the culture around food, educate students and families (and even school staff), and create what I refer to as buy in. This buy in provides our food service workers the support that is necessary. Right now, FSD (Food Service Directors) are put in an impossible situation. They need to adhere to national governement policy standards, create meals that children want to eat rather than throw away, please parents who are helping to fund the program, and stay within their budgets. That is a lot of opposing factors to appease. The question that our policy makers are neglecting is “How can we better support our FSD?” By addressing this question while maintaining our high standards for nutrition, we are setting everyone up for better success.

So while I shared my excitement with you about the new USDA Dietary Guidelines and my hope that it will spur more changes in school lunch reform, I am not naive enough to think that new guidelines are enough to fix the problem. We are in need of a serious overhaul of our system, re-prioritizing the role real food plays in education. As a country, we need to first come to an agreement that without proper nutrition a student’s ability to learn anything in a classroom is diminished. Once we agree on this we need to determine that our children are a valuable asset and as such deserve healthy whole foods and not highly processed, chemical filled food like substances. If this is also a statement in which we can all agree, then we need to put our words into action. It is not up to the FSD to somehow magically provide their students with real lunches using fresh ingredients when they 1. have no kitchen or storage  facilities beyond a heat and serve capacity, 2. Are provided laughably small budgets in which to create these meals, and 3. Are not provided the support that will allow students to develop tastes of real, unprocessed foods. We need to stop the blame game and make the investment in our children, that is the only way in which this will work, we can not simply depend on changing government standards and expect that will solve the problem.

While this is going to take a lot of work, large investments of money, and some time – the end result will be worth it. The key is taking the time to really do it right and not just keep throwing new regulations around. That was a big flaw in Michelle Obama’s plan – there was no structural support for sustainable change. This is what I believe needs to happen in order for a successful school lunch reform:

  1. Students need to be given regular, routine experiences growing and preparing food. Not only will these experiences improve the willingness of students to eat real foods, but these experiences enhance learning in all subject areas. It provides a method for hands on learning in math, reading, social studies, and of course science. These lessons should begin in Kindergarten (Preschool where offered) and become a consistent part of the curriculum through grade 12. By investing in these experiences, we are also investing in a quality and meaningful education for our children that translate into the real world unlike our current teach for testing model.
  2. Every school should have a scratch kitchen and a real chef. Staff should receive proper training for scratch cooking. There is only so many options you have when you lack a proper kitchen and the knowledge of cooking with real ingredients. While this is a large investment upfront, there is a cost savings when you are able to prepare your own food in bulk. Additionally, it will alleviate one of the FSD biggest problems – getting kids to actually buy and eat the food being offered. When the new regulations were first rolled out, many students were turning their nose up at the “healthier” options. While this can be in part due to not having the exposure to this food before (hence #1) it is also because the “healthier” options were still highly processed foods that staff just needs to heat and serve. With lower sodium, fat, and sugar content these highly processed foods no longer taste good. With a scratch kitchen, fresh ingredients can be used and fresh always tastes better! If we can make school lunches fresher and tastier than the brown bag lunch, then more students will participate in school lunch programs which will yield higher profits and allow the program to flourish. Kids want tasty (don’t we all?) and parents want healthy – with scratch kitchens you can accommodate both.
  3. You need student buy in for a successful program – after all if students aren’t buying the lunches then the program will run in the red. I don’t know about you, but I like to be able to recognize the foods I eat. They need to be familiar in some way. While trying new foods can be exciting, I would rather not waste money on something completely unknown. Kids are even more reliant on familiarity than most adults. A good way to get them comfortable with a new recipe is to offer tastings. Before launching a new food on a menu, offer small tastings for free and ask for feedback. (And listen to the feedback – students like to know that their voices are being heard) If a tasting gets a good review, go ahead and put it on the menu. If not, ditch the idea and try something else.
  4. Make the lunch program a part of the school culture, literally. Foods are often a central part of any culture. Perhaps your school is culturally diverse. In that case, invite students to submit traditional family recipes. Chose a new submitted recipe each month to serve. If your school lacks diversity, then have the FSD choose a different culture to highlight each month to expose students to new ideas.
  5. Messaging is important. Bring in area chefs for special days, everyone loves a great chef. This could be promoting a local restaurant and will add to the sense of community. Having a professional chef preparing lunch makes kids feel important and valued. Food is a way of expressing love and caring for others. What is the message we are sending our students with our current offerings? You may be sparking the next great chef!
  6. Farmers should be regarded as the heroes that they are. Schools can help foster the importance of their local farmers by inviting them in to the schools, bringing classes out to learn on the farm, and highlighting foods in the lunchroom that were provided by their local farmer. This builds community around food and reinforces a strong connection to real food.
  7. Parental buy in is equally as important as the student buy in, after all they are the ones providing the money to support the school lunch program. Parents fall into two basic categories – they are either deciding to participate in a school lunch program because it is cost effective and easier for their lifestyle (if they no longer feel it is cost effective – they will stop participating), or they refuse to participate because they feel the options are unhealthy. Many families qualify for free or reduced lunches and therefore participate because it may be the only meal their child eats on a regular basis. This is where it becomes important to continue to keep costs low, but also improve the quality. Easier said than done. Lets face it, quality food gets expensive. This is not going to change a whole lot until we stop the practice of subsidizing crops that promote the production of unhealthy foods. Until that happens, we need to convince our government to provide schools with larger school lunch subsidies while also convincing parents that the extra dollar a day is worth it. How do you do that? By involving them. Invite parents into the lunchroom, ask them to submit recipes, do tastings at PTO meetings. Let them see first hand what the lunch program is all about and explain why it is important that they participate. Listen to their feedback and provide open lines of communication.

Do you have ideas that I have missed? I would love to hear them. I would also love to hear what YOU are doing to make a difference in your school food program, together we can make a change!

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