Linda Dawson is IASB director/editorial services and editor of TheIllinois School Board Journal
To paraphrase the famous tagline from the movie ‘Field of Dreams,’ “If you serve it they will come.” But getting people to visit a baseball memorial may be easier than getting students to eat healthier at school.
Ten years ago, state legislation was passed requiring school districts to implement wellness policies and take a closer look at foods being served in their cafeterias. That initial wellness policy work was followed with legislation regarding concession stands and school fundraisers.
For some participants in the task force that helped develop guidelines, the quest was to ban the burrito from the lunch line. Unfortunately, many students liked the burrito as well as some of the other options that began disappearing from the weekly school lunch menus. And even if the students liked the changes, some cafeteria programs were unable to sustain the healthier options due to increased costs to provide fresh fruits and vegetables.
Since 2009, Illinois’ participation in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) has fluctuated with an uptick of 19,000 lunches between 2009 and 2010 but a decline of 20,000 lunches served between 2011 and 2012, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees NSLP. Compared with other states, those fluctuations seem normal. But anecdotal evidence indicates some children are not happy with changes to their burrito and pizza favorites.
Bertrand Weber, who swapped his career as a chef in boutique hotels and high-end restaurants to become director of culinary and nutrition in the Minneapolis, Minnesota, school district after he saw what his son was being fed at school, is one of the successes. Weber’s effort was profiled by Education Week in early March.
In contrast, the television experiment by popular British chef Jamie Oliver, “Jamie’s Food Revolution,” met with resistance in Los Angeles public schools, where the superintendent yanked his filming permit and banned him from school cafeterias as he began replacing hamburgers with salads, vegetable curries, quinoa salad, and Thai noodles — food that increasingly was thrown away before it was even tasted, according to TheLondon Daily Mirror online website.
Oliver, according to the Mirror, was more successful in his battle with fast-food giant McDonald’s, where he took credit for getting them to reject the use of ammonium hydroxide to convert fatty beef to the beef filler, commonly referred to as “pink slime.” Oliver, through his California-based foundation Jamie’s Food Revolution (USA), still aspires to change nutrition in school cafeterias with the following premise:
“Imagine a world where children were fed tasty and nutritious real food at school from the age of 4 to 18, a world where every child was educated about how amazing food is, where it comes from, how it affects the body, and how it can save their lives.”
One nutritional success in schools is the increase in participation in the NSLP’s breakfast offerings. Total participation in Illinois has grown from 293,385 in 2009 to 430,814 in 2013, according to USDA data. Some of that growth can be attributed to grant availability, like those offered by General Mills Foodservice, which is teaming up with the National Dairy Council to help provide funds for breakfast in school.
The number of children eligible for these meals is also rising (see accompanying chart). But even with more children qualifying, many students still are not served by the free or reduced-price program. Teachers will attest that high school students especially are often hesitant to identify themselves and submit the necessary papers from home to qualify. The National School Lunch Program attempts to relieve the burden with this disclaimer: “No physical segregation of or other discrimination against any child eligible for a free lunch or a reduced price lunch under this subsection shall be made by the school nor shall there by any overt identification of any child by special tokens or tickets, announced or published lists of names, or by other means.”
That is certainly a well-written and legally supported premise, but that doesn’t mean that some students don’t feel unwarranted attention in the lunch line, where their colleagues often know that they have a free or reduced-price pass. One organization, Feeding America, the nation’s leading domestic hunger relief charity, has attempted to counter that stigma by sponsoring a backpack program. They partner with local food banks so that eligible students can receive food to take home on Fridays to help alleviate hunger on the weekend so that children will be fed and ready to learn when they come back to school Monday morning.
Local school districts will need to be encouraged to try such creative measures in order to effectively relieve student hunger, especially where national school breakfast and lunch programs are not working.