School menus across the nation are getting a facelift.
After years of serving cheap, processed meals, schools are not only offering students food healthier food choices, but teaching staff how to whip up delicious, fresh dishes the way they did in the early days -- from scratch.
Nutrition advocates are helping to change what’s being served by pushing schools to replace chicken nuggets, say, with real chicken - the kind that is still on the bone. Schools are re-training lunchroom cooks not just to reheat food, but to prep full meals made with local ingredients and with less processed meats.
“The food can be simple, but it is all real,” said chef Ann Cooper. “When you feed kids real food, they’re healthier. Kids are calmer and kids are able to learn. School districts across the nation are making these changes.” Cooper is also the director of food services at Boulder Valley School District. “People are just beginning to cook in different ways,” she said.
Some schools start by removing soda-filled vending machines and stocking them with water. Others are getting grants for salad bars filled with local, fresh produce. Schools are also refusing to serve the infamous beef additive ‘pink slime’ -- instead serving turkey and chicken. The trend is to give lunch servers more power than ever -- the power to change eating habits of younger generations.
Cooper is working with a network of organizations across the U.S. that exchange ideas and strategizing ways to get schools away from feeding kids highly-processed ‘heat n’ serve’ foods. This practice has reigned king for decades, and may have contributed to staggering rates of childhood obesity.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. The epidemic can lead to pre-diabetes, heart disease, cancer, sleep apnea, even social and psychological problems.The CDC also says schools play a critical role by establishing a safe and supportive environment to support healthy behaviors.
In Boulder, Colo. Cooper says her school menus include food made from scratch, or ingredients locally grown. The focus is on serving fresh fruits veggies, organic milk and salads the kids can make.
Other menus include dishes like frittatas, pumpkin curry and carrot ginger soup.
The same thing is happening in Georgia, and other states. School districts in the Peach State are on track to serve up an unprecedented amount of locally grown food to kids.
Starting in the Fall, kids will be offered a program known as “Harvest of the Month.” Teachers will highlight fresh and local foods in the cafeteria. Kids will learn and eat food grown in surrounding counties, and they’ll learn why it matters, and why it’s all good to eat.
Alice Rolls, executive director of Georgia Organics, says this farm-to-school program has grown substantially.
“We started with two individual schools five years ago,” Rolls said. “Now, we are working with districts all over the state. It’s clear that school systems want it, educators want it, and parents want it. Most importantly, it’s a great strategy to improve the health of Georgia’s children and economy.”
If this all this sound too pricey, it’s not.
“It’s the biggest myth that it costs more money to cook scratch, it’s the opposite,” said Kate Adamick, the co-founder of Cook for America.
Cook for America hosts a 5-day culinary boot camp for school food service workers. She travels across the country empowering folks by teaching them how to revamp the way their lunch programs are laid out. The boot camp covers just about everything from time management to knife skills and menu planning.
She says people really don’t know what is in the food they’re eating, and school cafeterias should look less like a shopping mall food court, and more like a kitchen.
“The majority of the kids like the real food presented to them in a positive way. It smells good and it looks good,” Admick said. “We don’t put a keg of beer near the water fountain. The kids will eat (the real food) if you give them a chance. A trained cook doesn’t need a lot of equipment.”
Dr. Yvonne Butler says it costs less to serve fresh.
“Basically when you buy in bulk, it’s cheaper,” Butler changed her menu when she was a principal in Dekalb County, Ga. “I actually saved more money than any school. We didn’t do anything that was pre-packed, because that already has sodium in it. We stopped frying, buying sugar, and flour to making big yeast rolls and cut down on heating costs with the big conventional ovens.”
She also said she reassigned a few of her food service workers to other departments, making her entire staff more functional and efficient. And Butler knows what works. She is an original. She has been promoting healthy eating for more than a decade and one of the first in Georgia. She says kids today are like she was growing up in Mississippi: addicted to sugar.
“I was addicted very early in life. I didn’t know I was addicted. I loved sugar,” she said.
When a doctor told Butler that her life was at risk, she re-evaluated her eating habits and the hundreds of kids she planned meals for. That’s when she introduced a six-step program in her school. It wasn’t just a sugar-free zone. Kids were given assignments, such as going for a walk after school with parents. Or learning how to garden and eat with fresh veggies. They learned about sodium and what it does to the human body, and how it remains in processed foods as a preservative. Her school also started each day with exercise.
According to Butler, the change she saw in students was amazing. Kids would have more focus and energy and have fewer absences. Her staff also changed for the better.
“Education is power. If we educate children, they won’t let us down,” she said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also stepping in. Starting in the fall, most schools must abide by a new set of rules requiring more fruits, vegetables and whole grains to be served. It also sets requirements for reducing the levels of sodium as well as saturated and trans fat in meals over the next decade.
Cook for America’s Adamick says she is also pleased there are lower maximum calorie requirements.
“I would characterize it as a step in the right direction, but not far enough,” says Adamick. “What is happening now -- is an increase in awareness of ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ We can’t continue to feed ourselves and children what we’ve been doing in the past 20 years.”